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The Lady of the Lake

Various articles in the ‘Vendetta’, and indeed, in these very ‘Tales of the Squid and Teapot’, assert that a Viking settlement once thrived on the island we now know as Hopeless, Maine. The often violent culture attributed to the Norsemen has been well documented, and it is known that many of those whom they did not kill would be taken into slavery; the Vikings who came to Hopeless were no exception. We can be confident that their slaves were brought from the British Isles, a fact evinced by the many Old-English surnames and place-names which still survive on the island.
For how long the Vikings remained on Hopeless is something of a mystery. Scholars have speculated that this must have occurred in one of those brief chapters in the history of the island, when the climate was very much kinder than it is today. What seems clear is that the deterioration of the environment was instrumental in their leaving for somewhere a little more hospitable, but not without first trying to appeal to whichever deity they believed to be responsible for this shift in their fortunes.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the most desperate measure of Old Norse culture was human sacrifice. While animals were regularly dispatched to please the pantheon of Asgard, to offer up a human life was reserved for only the most sacred of reasons – and this is how a raven-haired beauty, the slave-girl Viviane, found herself selected for the honour of appeasing the gods.

The Viking term for sacrifice was blót. It is ironic that, while contemporary Hopeless is mostly one large blot on the landscape, the lake they chose for this particular blót is picturesque, even today. Needless to say, the virginal Viviane found nothing attractive about the lake, as the völva, the seeress, chanted as she bound the maiden’s arms behind her back and unseen hands held her beneath the icy waters. Whatever her final thoughts were, we shall never know; all we can guess is that they were intent on vengeance.

As the months and years slipped by it became clear that Viviane’s death did nothing to halt the mysterious fog that quietly insinuated itself on and around the island. Worse still, it brought with it a variety of horrors that even the fearless Norsemen could not tolerate. During those long, grim years, the vengeful spirit of Viviane brooded beneath the dark water, growing stronger as she fed upon the malevolence that now suffused the land. Eerie tales began to be told of otherworldly singing emanating from the midst of the lake, and of the dreadful apparition that would break its surface to claim any unfortunate young man who chanced to pass by.

Almost a thousand years passed, and those who have inhabited Hopeless throughout that time have wondered at the singular beauty of the Haunted Lake, as it became known. Of course, they were not aware of its history and of the girl who was sacrificed to an uncaring deity. They only guessed at the existence of her malign spirit; the Haunted Lake’s cold and unforgiving guardian. While the presence of vampires and werewolves, spiteful spoonwalkers and various nameless, razor-toothed and tentacled creatures, were real threats and there to be avoided at one’s peril, the dreadful glamour that tended and pervaded the lake was far more terrifying and chilling in the extreme. Its very beauty, in the heart of that harsh and ill-favoured landscape, invoked dread, and none would venture anywhere near its shores.

It must be near to a century ago that Randall Middlestreet, (the grandfather of Bartholomew, the current landlord of The Squid and Teapot) was the island’s Night Soil Man. The precarious nature of the Night Soil Man’s job, traversing Hopeless during the hours of darkness, demands that he employs an apprentice, someone to take over the essential work in the event of his injury or death. Randall himself was elevated from apprentice to the role Night Soil Man at the early age of fifteen, when his master was unfortunately consumed by a ravening monster (this was described in the tale ‘The Wendigo’, should you be interested). Apprentices were always boys recruited from the orphanage, essentially hefty introverts who could be trusted to endure the necessary isolation and heavy lifting that the job required.
Randall’s apprentice, at the time of our tale, was Mortimer Whiteway, an intelligent, bookish lad who preferred old tales of heroic valour to anything that the orphanage could offer. The opportunity to escape and lead the life of a Night Soil Man held a certain – not to say surprising – sense of allure for the young man. By the age of sixteen he was as able to heft a bucket on to his back, or navigate the island in darkness, as Randall himself. He loved his work, but deep in his heart there was always a nagging feeling that something was missing from his life. While previous generations of Night Soil Men had been thankful that their smell had protected them from the various denizens that terrified other islanders, Mortimer ached for action and adventure.
On Hopeless the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ should always be in the forefront of one’s mind.

It was a moonlit night in spring when they came upon the lake. Randall’s rounds rarely brought him this way, for no one had lived in the area for as long as any could remember. He had heard the stories, of course, of the Lady of the Lake, whose enchanting song captivated the unwary and enticed them into her watery realm. It was hard to believe, looking at it in moonlight, pretty as a picture. However, for all of its charm, Randall believed every word of the legend. Hopeless did not do ‘pretty’ and that in itself was enough to warn him that there was danger here. Mortimer, on the other hand, had other views.
“Is she really there?” he asked.
“I believe so, but no one has ever seen her, as far as I know,” replied Randall. “But there again, if they had they wouldn’t be around to tell the tale.”
“I’d like to… and I’m going to,” said Mortimer determinedly. “I’ll find a way.”
“Best you keep away, or you’ll regret it,” replied the Night Soil Man severely, a shiver of foreboding running down his spine.

As I have mentioned before, Mortimer was a keen reader of adventure stories. One of his favourite tales was that of Odysseus, who had himself chained to the mast of his ship in order to hear the song of the sirens. Thinking of this, it was not long before the beginnings of an idea formed in Mortimer’s mind. If Odysseus was able to listen to a siren-song all those years ago, so could he. The main drawback was that he could not do this alone; he would need help in safely securing himself to a tree. Knowing that there would be little point in approaching Randall, who would doubtless try to stop him, he resolved to ask a friend from the orphanage, one Jarvis Woodchester. Jarvis was a few years Mortimer’s junior, but, like him, a lover of any story that involved derring-do. Jarvis was also deeply envious of Mortimer, who had escaped the orphanage and gained a certain amount of celebrity on Hopeless, as the Night Soil Man’s apprentice.
It was about a week later, on Mortimer’s night off, that two shadowy figures could be seen slipping quietly down the cobbled street that passed beneath the windows of The Squid and Teapot and, a little further along the road, creeping by the infamous Madam Evadne’s Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen. They made their way into the heart of the island, towards the lake. Had you been there and looked closely, you would have noticed that one of the figures wore a clothes peg on his nose.
“Tie it as tightly as you can, Jarvis,” said Mortimer. “Afterwards, get far away from here until first light, then come and set me free.”
The younger boy nodded, but said nothing, trying not to inhale the unpleasant aroma that even an apprentice Night Soil Man carries with him.

It was late, much later than midnight, when Mortimer was lifted from sleep by a song that rang like silver bells in the heavens. For a moment he panicked, wondering where he was. Then he remembered, and the knowledge was far from comfortable. He had slept leaning against the tree, his arm slung over a branch. The ropes that had bound him, however, were inexplicably scattered on the ground. A cold sweat broke out all over his body as the realisation dawned that soon he would be totally at the mercy of the Lady of the Lake. A moment later a dreadful panic enveloped him entirely, when he felt himself become paralysed, as though bonds far more secure than the ropes, now lying useless at his feet, held him in an iron grasp.

She rose from the dark waters of the lake without causing as much as a ripple on its surface. Although the moon was obscured by clouds and the night hung like a suffocating shroud upon the sleeping island, Mortimer could see the Lady of the Lake as clearly as if she was bathed in sunlight. Her lips made no movement but her siren song filled the air as she silently glided towards him, arms outstretched. Mortimer squeezed his eyes tightly shut, but it made no difference. Her pale, beautiful face was indelibly etched upon the darkness; it was as if he had stared for too long at the sun. And then she was upon him, wrapping her arms around his still form, pressing her mouth against his. Mortimer melted into the embrace. If this was death, then so be it.
He felt himself being drawn towards the lake, her hold upon him firm but gentle, with all the seductive insistence of a lover. He stepped willingly into the icy water, resigned to his fate. It was then that everything changed. The arms that caressed him became cold and hard and the mouth pressing against his was lipless and skeletal. Mortimer opened his eyes wide and a scream ripped from his body as he beheld the full horror of the hideous apparition that held him in its grasp. His scream turned to helpless gurgles as the malevolent spirit that had once been the beautiful, raven-haired Viviane, dragged him into the inky depths of the lake.

When it was clear that Mortimer had apparently vanished from the face of the earth, Randall Middlestreet soon guessed what had happened. He silently cursed himself for taking the young man anywhere near the Haunted Lake. Upon returning to the spot, it did not take long to discover the discarded length of rope lying near its banks. He knew then, for certain, that Mortimer had gone forever. Randall sadly shook his head and made his way back to his cottage with a heavy heart, mourning the loss of his friend and apprentice.

It was a day or two later, as he was preparing to begin his rounds, that Randall saw a figure standing carefully downwind on the path, some yards in front of him. It was boy of fourteen or fifteen years of age.
“Good evening Mr Middlestreet,” the boy said politely. “I hear you might be looking for a new apprentice.”
Randall raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“How do you know that? I haven’t told anyone that I do.”
“Oh… word gets around. Someone said that Mort Whiteway had disappeared.”
Randall was puzzled but, on reflection, it’s hard to keep a secret in a place like Hopeless.
“As a matter of fact I do need an apprentice. Are you interested?”
Jarvis Woodchester grinned slyly to himself, recalling how easy it had been to untie the knots of the rope while Mortimer slept.
“Oh definitely,” he said. “When can I start?”

The Elders

The Royal Navy vessel, HMS Sabrina, was a frigate of the ‘Scamander’ class, one of a series of ships that had served in the late Napoleonic War. These were constructed of pine, a wood selected because the Royal Navy needed to build ships rapidly. Although quick to build, they were not expected to last as long as those made of oak. The ‘Sabrina’ was no exception and floundered in the North Atlantic in 1815, during her stint supporting an expedition that was searching for the fabled North-West Passage. Some of her hapless crew survived the shipwreck and found their way to Hopeless, Maine. For a while they believed that they were safe.

Those familiar with the unforgiving nature of Hopeless will be aware that the mortality rate is high, especially among newcomers. Over the years, the island has been the salvation of many a shipwrecked individual. For the vast majority, however, this was but a temporary reprieve. Only the lucky few have managed to survive the challenges posed by a landscape seething with hostility. After almost a year on the island, the remaining survivors from HMS Sabrina felt confident that they had beaten every obstacle that Hopeless harboured. With the aid of some of the tools and weapons salvaged from the ‘Sabrina’, they had successfully evicted a colony of spoonwalkers from the deserted hovel that they now called home and valiantly fought off some strange tentacled beasts who seemed comfortable on both land and sea. The company had put up with wailing ghosts and the attentions of assorted night-stalkers. As the months slipped by the original band of thirty was depleted to just six. Despite all, these six felt themselves to be impervious to anything that the island could throw at them; after all, they had been the ones who had managed to stay alive. In time they would, undoubtedly, have been proved wrong. As it happened, they did not get chance to find out; it was their own ignorance and inclement weather, that doomed them.

There is nothing quite like a beautiful summer’s day to gladden the heart and warm the soul. Sadly, in the year of 1816, no one in the north-eastern states of America could claim to have enjoyed a beautiful summer, or indeed any sort of summer at all. You will not be surprised to learn that Hopeless, Maine, was no exception.

Even by the usual, unremarkable, standards of Hopeless weather, the season, so far, had been abysmal. It was late June and it seemed that no one had bothered to inform the weather gods, who appeared to have been asleep since Christmas. When the killer winds that brought in blinding hail storms abated, a blanket of freezing fog wrapped itself around the island, chilling all life-forms (not to mention one or two of the non-life forms) to the bone.

The small community clustered around the acre or so of spiky grass, common-ground that many years later would come to be known as Iron Mills Common, were faring better than most. The majority of ‘Commoners’, as they were called, were descended from the Saxon slaves of Vikings who had settled on the island hundreds of years earlier. For generations they had suffered every privation imaginable and had learned to survive, no matter what. A bit of wind and icy fog was nothing to them.

There was one man, however, who felt the detrimental effects of the unseasonal weather more than most. Old Corwen Nailsworthy was the community’s apothecary, vintner, distiller and protective guardian of a little copse of elder trees that grew on the edge of the common. These trees were the source of many of Corwen’s remedies and were generally hardy enough to put up with Hopeless’ awful climate. In the past they had produced a wealth of blossom, providing the small community with elderflower wine, cordial, tea and when flour was available, fritters. Besides their culinary uses, the flowers were applied to the skin to alleviate joint pain and elderflower water soothed sore eyes. In addition, of course, the ripe berries, also rich in medicinal properties, made ample stocks of elderberry wine, port and syrup for all to enjoy. Corwen worked tirelessly to use the bounty provided by the elders to keep his fellow Commoners happy and relatively healthy. Sad to relate, 1816 offered no such provision. Such a long and unrelenting winter, having refused any hint of spring to dress the trees, ensured a barren harvest.

Corwen was in his stockroom, looking in dismay at the fast-emptying shelves. Luckily, the previous year had endowed them with a generous supply of medicines and alcohol but the apothecary feared for the future. If they were to be cast into a permanent state of winter – as seemed likely – there would be no more elderberries, or elderberry blossom. He gazed out of the small, grimy window at his beloved trees, bare and forlorn in the grey evening light. Suddenly, his eye was drawn to a group of men standing on the edge of the copse. They seemed to be paying close attention to one of the trees. To Corwen’s horror, one of the group produced an axe and began chopping its trunk, as if to fell it.  He rushed out, shouting to them to stop.

The axeman, burly and tattooed, spun on him angrily.

‘We’re cold, old man. You don’t need all these trees. We’re taking this one today and when it’s gone, we’ll take more. Now get out of my way.’

‘You can’t burn elder,’ shouted Corwen, angrily. ‘You will be cursed. The elder is a sacred tree. If you dare burn it, death will follow soon after.’

The men laughed heartily

‘Your superstitions don’t scare us,’ said the axeman. ‘We’ve survived war and shipwreck and everything that this accursed island has thrown at us. We’re not going to be frightened by you or your fairy tales.’

With that, he pushed Corwen out of the way and swung his axe at the base of the tree. It was tougher to cut down than he had thought but eventually the old timbers gave a death-rattle creak and the elder fell to the earth.

Corwen watched, miserable and helpless, as one of the men threw a rope around the fallen tree. Without glancing back they dragged it away, still laughing at the old man’s superstition.

That evening there was less merriment to be had than the six survivors of The Sabrina had hoped. Instead of the roaring blaze in the grate that they had envisioned, the wood of the elder burned with little heat and much smoke. But, they reasoned, with an icy storm raging outside, little heat was preferable to no heat. In view of this they resolved to keep the fire going all night and, when the whole tree was burned, go back for more, as promised.

The following day Corwen looked out of his window, filled with trepidation. Despite his warnings of the terrible consequences of burning the elder wood, he only half-believed the tales. He expected the ex-naval men to return at any moment and take another of his trees. All day he waited anxiously but no one appeared. They did not come back on the following day either, or the one after that.

‘Could it be true?’ he wondered to himself. ‘Is there really a curse?’

Curiosity got the better of him. Taking care not to be seen, Corwen made his way to the place where he knew that the men lived. It looked empty. There was no smoke issuing from the chimney and the front  door was firmly closed against the weather. Gingerly, Corwen peered through the window. The sight that met his eyes made him reel back in shock.

The bodies of the six men were strewn around the room, their faces a dark red with features twisted in agony.

‘The curse,’ muttered Corwen to himself. ‘It has come to pass.’

The story of the terrible retribution of the elders spread rapidly through the length and breadth of the island and Corwen and his trees were never threatened again. The following year the weather reverted to something resembling normality, much to the relief of one and all.

Should you be tempted to scoff at this tale and prove it wrong by burning elder, I beg you not to. While the wood has been proved to be excellent for the construction of whistles, pipes and chanters, it can be fatal on a fire. One of its more unpleasant effects is, that when burned, it releases a lethal cyanide gas. More than one mediaeval peasant has discovered this to their cost, which has undoubtedly contributed to the adverse folklore surrounding the tree. As my mother never tired of telling me, it always pays to respect your elders!

Story by Martin Pearson-art Tom Brown