Fool's Fire by Mark Wolf
To this day, the story is told of the Ignis fatuus and of a dark man that accompanies her. How they travel together from barrow to barrow over the moors and how she tells him of the mighty deeds and exploits of the warrior-chieftains of old buried within them.
“Oh, mother, I won't fail you,” Brayden had vowed a few minutes earlier as he knelt down by her side at her sick bed. She moaned in her fever and tossed from the pain, her black pustules exuding a horrendous stench. The Great Pestilence had taken hold of her and only the intervention of the most qualified and expensive of leeches would cure her.
Brayden leaped over the tumbled ancient stones encircling the Oak grove, dropped to his knees and hid behind them as the light reappeared, this time much closer than it had before. Behind him, the quarter-moon peeked out from behind scudding clouds, its reflection only dimly illuminating the moor. The light moved forward as if aware of his presence, hovered in place for a few moments, then slowly drifted away from Brayden as held his breath in fear.
Ignis fatuus, the priest had called it. Fool's fire, perhaps the very fire of the ancient evil one--or could it indeed be that which the other legends spoke of; Faerie's fire, hovering over the barrows of the Chieftains and mighty warriors of old, leading him to their hoarded treasures of gold. Brayden stood up carefully, suddenly aware that the knees of his breeks were soaked in the acidic black moistness of the moors.
The light stopped once again, as if aware of Brayden. He dropped quickly to the ground behind the stones, crawling forward to gaze through a narrow crack as the light moved toward him.
“Oh, Mary, Jesus, and Saints protect me!” He prayed, a soft whisper into the night. Perhaps I pray to the wrong Gods. Maybe I should seek the protection of the old ones. This ancient shrine had more in common with them than with this new religion. “Oh, Wuldor and Bealdor!” he whispered, “do not take offense at my presumption in following your servant!”
“SERVANT, am I? Have you not heard of Nerthus, the Earth Mother?” a voice spoke from the light. “Have the sons of the Angli so forgotten me that I am considered a servant to the male gods?”
The light diminished. A tall feminine form clothed in gauzy white bedecked with garlands of green, golden, and red vines stooped over Brayden, eyes blazing with white fire.
“YOU are the Earth Mother?” Brayden lowered his gaze in obeisance as the light from her eyes fixed him in her gaze and illuminated the heather at his feet. Now I will never get the gold to procure the services of the leech. Mother shall die.
“I sense your fear, but not so much for yourself. What is it you fear, child of man?” Nerthus asked.
“My mother lies dying, Great Lady, and I have not the means to procure the ministrations of a leech to cure her,” Brayden said.
“You honor your mother. I had thought to take your life for your impertinence in following me and for seeking to rob the graves of mighty men,” Nerthus paused in contemplation, then smiled. “Yet, my heart is now stirred within me for the love and esteem you hold for your mother.” Her illumination brightened. “Follow me man-child, and I will lead you to what you seek.”
Nerthus shone brightly and moved away quickly, forcing Brayden to stumble and fall as he ran to keep up with her. He was panting before she stopped and hovered over a low barrow. “Here is what you seek. The bones of the man here belonged to a mighty warrior and he was honored with much gold from his Chieftain, as it was awarded him for the bravery he showed in defending his liege from death. But he spends it not. Take only what you need, but now I exact a promise from you, in turn.”
“What is it you wish of me, Great Lady? I will do anything within my power,” Brayden swore.
“Whether your mother lives or dies, you return to me and become my companion. Such devotion from a son of man for his mother, I have not seen for many long years. I would have that esteem for myself.”
“It shall be as you say. The leeches do not always cure and this boon you have granted me is worth my life in fealty to you. I promise to accompany you as soon as I am assured of an outcome, whether mother lives or passes.”
“Then open the barrow. What you seek is near the surface.”
Brayden dropped to his knees and tore aside the heather and dug at the loose peat frantically with his hands. His fingers, aching and shredded from the rough earth, finally touched a horde of gold that could make him a rich man. He paused, tempted by the gold, but, taking a quick breath, he took only that which he required and reburied the rest.
“You are true in heart. Now go and return to me, quickly,” Nerthus said.
Brayden did as he was bid, returning to his small village and waking its only leech who complained mightily until he saw the color of Brayden's gold. The leech dressed up in his protective costume with the bird-beak mask filled with bergamot oil to ward of the evil vapors from the sick and followed Brayden back to his small cottage.
The leech bled his mother and told him to watch her through the rest of the night, but said he feared that he had arrived too late.
* * * * *
Bells tolling outside Brayden's cottage and the voices of criers calling all to bring out their dead woke Brayden the next morning. He raised his head in confusion as turned his gaze on his mother. She'd passed in the night; no longer in pain and misery. Brayden forced himself to perform one last service for her. He splashed her soiled night garments in the fragrant herbs and bergamot oil the leech had left for him, carried his mother outside and loaded her on the death-cart, himself. He glanced at the sky and back at the house, wondering if he could stay, if Nerthus would notice a delayed in his return to her. But the leech so dearly bought had eased, and finally released, his mother’s pain. He turned and walked slowly toward the moors.
Silver Pen Word of the day: ignis fatuus [IG-nis FACH-oo-ahs] - 1. a pale light over marshy ground, sometimes seen at night 2. a misleading illusion. Origin: Approx. 1563 from Med. Latin, ignis - fire + fatuus - foolish