Sunday, 17 October 2021 16:15

A Boy, a Beast and a Plague of Midges by Maureen Bowden

A Boy, a Beast and a Plague of Midges By Maureen Bowden Harry walked along the rocky shore, enjoying the spring sunshine, the tang of the sea, and the solitude. His phone rang. His sister, Lorelei, said, “Where are you?”

“At Llanddulas, on the beach. The school’s closed.”

“I know. Mum told me. Something to do with midges?”

“Yep. They’re everywhere. The pest control people are fumigating the place. Did she ask you if I can come to yours for lunch?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m ringing. Get here for half past twelve. I’ll be on my work break then and I’ve got a surprise for you.”

“Okay, Loz. Laters.” He ended the call.

This was a good day. For the only time in his fourteen years he was enjoying the first day of April. He usually hated it. April Fool jokes were a nuisance. He saw nothing funny in teasing, humiliating or upsetting people. A few of his classmates would have been behaving like morons, but thanks to the midges he could keep out of their way, at least until the morning was over and sanity returned to keep the jokers in check. Some of them anyway. Harry liked animals more than people. They were usually kinder. He had no fear, therefore, when a large, black dog, bounded along the shore to meet him. He had little interest in its pedigree or breed. He wasn’t breedist. The beast stopped in front of him, cocked its head on one side and whimpered. Harry crouched down and examined it for injuries. It was a girl dog. He disliked the word ‘bitch’ so he never used it. She appeared to be unhurt.

He tickled her behind the ears. “What’s bothering you, girl?”

She licked his hand, ran a few yards back the way she came, turned to face him again and barked.

“You want me to follow you?” he said. “Okay, lead the way.”

He ran behind her along the shingles. It was a normal day, and then it wasn’t. A whirlpool appeared in the air. The dog leaped through it. Without stopping to think, Harry followed.

They were still on the shore but the land behind it was different. The roads, houses and limestone quarry were gone and a forest spread into the hills. If this was an April Fool joke it was a corker. The dog ran towards the breakers, turned back and barked. Harry looked into the sea and saw a figure with long silver hair. He was tied to a stump of dead tree resembling a gnarled hand with crooked fingers, protruding from the waves. Harry had heard of such things: remnants of ancient woodland poking through the sea bed. The tide was coming in. It had reached the figure’s waist. With Harry close behind, the dog swam towards the captive, an old man wearing a white robe. An iron collar was fastened around his neck. The dog whined and gnawed at the thick rope that bound him. Harry attempted to untie it but it was tightly knotted and the water was rising fast. He felt scared and helpless.

The old man was barely conscious but his lips were moving. Harry leaned towards him and heard him whisper, “Remove the torque.”

“The what?”

“Around my neck. Remove the torque.”

He found a clasp at the back of the collar, clicked it open and lifted it from the captive’s neck. The old man took a deep breath and a shudder ran through his body. He stretched out his arms and the ropes snapped. He shouted to Harry, “Throw that abomination into the sea.”

Harry wasn’t keen to litter the sea with any kind of abomination but this wasn’t the time to argue. He flung the collar far out into the waves. The old man lifted Harry and the dog out of the water as if they were as light as children’s toys. He muttered an inaudible chant and the world blacked out.

When it reasserted itself they were in a cave on dry land. The old man dropped Harry and the dog to the floor and said, “Get out of those wet clothes, boy, I’ll fetch us dry garments.” He retreated to the back of the cave and returned a moment later with two white robes. He handed the smaller one to Harry and turned his back to strip and dress in the replacement. While Harry was doing likewise he said, “What century are you from, boy, and what’s your name?”

Harry had convinced himself that this was a dream, but what the heck. It was a good one. Might as well go with the flow. “The twenty-first. My name’s Harry. When and where am I, and who are you?”

“This is the sixth century. We are in the Carneddau, my local mountains.” He walked to a small pile of logs at the cave’s entrance and waved his hand across them. They burst into flames. He sat beside the fire and signalled Harry to join him. “Sit and warm yourself, Harry. Lay your clothes here. They’ll soon dry.”

Harry joined him and spread out his clothes close to the flames, “You haven’t told me your name,” he said

“When we give others our name we give them power over us. Most don’t know how to use it, but some do. I must trust you before I give you mine.”

The dog trotted over to Harry, sat beside him, licked his hand and laid her head in his lap. The old man said, “Ah, Bella the beast, my faithful companion, trusts you. So must I. You have both earned my gratitude for saving my life. I sent her in search of a friend and she found you. My name is Taliesin, bard and sorcerer.”

“Did that thing around your neck take away your magic?”

“It did. Ancient warrior chiefs wore the torques as a sign of their authority but iron drains a sorcerer’s power.”

“Like kryptonite and Superman?”

“Like what and who?”

“Never mind. They’re after your time.” Harry was enjoying this dream. He stroked Bella’s head, ruffled her fur and said to Taliesin, “Your name sounds familiar but I don’t know much about you. My gran probably would.”

“Is your grandam a learned woman?”

He shrugged. “She knows a lot about history but she has trouble sending a text.”

“What is a text?”

“A message you can send on a phone.” A sudden thought jolted him into panic. “Oh no, my phone. It was in my pocket when I ran into the sea. The water will have ruined it.” He reached for his jacket, fumbled in the pocket and pulled out his phone.

Taliesin said, “Has the sea taken away your talisman’s power?”

Harry thought of the extra hours his mum had to work for the money to buy it. He fought back tears and nodded.

“Like iron and kryptonite?” Taliesin asked.

“Just as bad,” he said, no longer believing this was a good dream.

Taliesin held out his hand. “Give it to me. I have an idea.”

Harry placed the phone in the sorcerer’s palm. It disappeared and reappeared a second later. “What just happened?”

“I exchanged it for itself, as it was, a heartbeat before you ran into the sea. It is now unharmed.” He passed it back to Harry. “Next time you invoke the power of a text tell your grandam that Taliesin sends his greetings.”

Harry wasn’t sure she’d know how to open it but he said, “I will. I promise. Now tell me who tried to drown you and why?”

“It was a royal reprobate, Prince Maeldwyn and his henchmen. They had participated in the fertility rights of the spring equinox in honour of the goddess Arianrhod. The rights are followed by a time known as Hilaria.” He sighed. “It is an excuse for outrageous behaviour that has little to do with the goddess and much to do with the liquid refreshment left over from the equinox celebrations. It ends when the wine runs out.”

“We have April Fool’s Day, when people play tricks on each other until twelve noon. It can be very annoying, but you were nearly killed by a mob of drunks.  That’s going way too far. Where did they get the torque?”

“Probably a family heirloom. They crept up on me when I was sleeping and Bella was out hunting for food, placed it around my neck, dragged me into the sea and tied me to the claw, as we call the ancient tree stump. Such things would not happen in your century, of course.”

“Wouldn’t say that. My century would probably send you heading for the hills, screaming for the goddess.”

“So, nothing changes?”

“Some things don’t, but there’s no point worrying about my century, you need to worry about your own.”

“Quite true my boy. One day Maeldwyn will be king and his mob of drunks, as you call them, will be his warrior companions. They are still hardly more than children and when they sobered up I doubt they remembered much about what they’d done, but they need to learn that suffering should not be taken lightly. I must make them experience it themselves in the hope that they will not readily inflict it on others.”           

“Set Bella on them. She’d enjoy that after what they did to you.”

He shook his head. “She would do them permanent harm. Their suffering must be severe but temporary. Any suggestions?”

“Midges.”

“What?”

“Midges. They bite. It hurts and gives you an itchy rash that gets worse when you scratch. It drives you mad but it only lasts a few days.”

“Perfect, Harry, I am in your debt again. I shall summon every midge on the island of Albion and I’ll teach those hard-faced hugger-muggers a lesson they won’t forget. This will be fun. We’ll wait until after sunset. It’s easier to scare people when darkness falls.”

“I’d like to stick around for the party,” Harry said, “but I have to get to my sister’s for lunch.”

Taliesin poked more logs onto the fire. “Don’t worry, my young friend. I’ll return you to the twenty-first century five heartbeats after you followed Bella through the portal.”

Harry relaxed. “Has the portal always been there?”

“Potentially, yes. Bella opened it when she was seeking you to help me.”

The afternoon wore on. Harry’s clothes dried. He dressed and returned the robe to Taliesin. “Who does that belong to?” he asked.

“My young apprentice, a talented lad, Merthyn Emrys. The Cornish folk call him Merlin.”

“Oh, right. Tell him thanks for the loan.” Presumably the sword in the stone business hadn’t happened yet.

They sat in the cave entrance and watched the setting sun stain the clouds pink as it melted into the sea, and the evening breeze sent shimmering ripples across the water. Taliesin said, “It’s time.”

He stepped outside, raised his arms and chanted something in a language alien to Harry’s ears. A cloud appeared on the horizon. It sped across the darkening sky towards them, and as it drew near Harry saw that it was a seething mass of midges, their wings clacking and snapping like a torrent of hail. Taliesin chanted again and after a heartbeat of blackness they were on the shore and the moon was rising. He said, “Find them, Bella.” They followed the dog along the shingle.

The sound of drunken revelry alerted them that Bella had found her prey. Prince Maeldwyn and five of his companions were cavorting in the breakers. They looked no more than  three or four years older than Harry. Taliesin pointed at the midges and they descended on the six figures, sending them running, screaming, out of the sea. Harry said, “It would have been more sensible to stay in the water.”

Taliesin chuckled. “The midges would have been waiting when they came out.”

Six human-shaped midge masses howled and scratched in terror. The sorcerer appeared to grow to twice his normal height and stepped towards them with Bella beside him, her eyes glowing red. One of the figures pointed at her and screamed, “Gwyllgi, Black Dog of Darkness that portends a terrible death.”

Another screamed, “Taliesin, please help us.”

The sorceror’s voice boomed, “Fools. You bound me to the claw and left me to drown. How can I help you?”

Maeldwyn and his companions collapsed onto the shingles, writhing and sobbing. The apparition boomed again. “All actions have consequences. When you have learned that lesson your agony will stop.”

He returned to his normal size and Bella’s eyes stopped glowing like the fires of Hell. Harry said, “I can’t help but feel sorry for them.”

“Not as sorry as they feel for themselves, no doubt, but don’t concern yourself. They’ll survive, hopefully a little wiser.” He pointed at the figures. The midges rose to the sky and dispersed. “Now, come, Harry. I’ll take you home.”

They walked together along the shore in the moonlight. Harry said, “Something’s bothering me. I don’t think we should have thrown the torque into the sea. It isn’t a dump for every human cast- off.”

“You’re right, Harry, but the torque is a magical artefact. The Mermaid Queen, Gwenhidw, will find a good use for it.”

“Oh, I suppose it’s all right then.” Maybe she could find a use for all the twenty-first century junk deposited on the sea bed, but he doubted it.

They reached the portal’s location. Taliesin raised his arm and chanted. The Portal opened.

Harry said, “How do you do that?”

“I’m a bard. I understand the power of a chant. It lies in sound. If you learn to listen in the right way you’ll hear the magic in words and music.”

Harry thought of a football stadium pulsating to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. There was a kind of magic in that, but dogs can’t sing.

 “So you’re a bard, but how did Bella do it when she was searching for me?”

“Animals can hear, see and do many things that people can’t, especially when they are a sorcerer’s companion. Now, bid her farewell.”  

Harry hugged the dog, “Goodbye, Bella. I love you and I’ll miss you when I go home.”

“Taliesin said. “You’ll meet again. The bonds of love are never broken. We are drawn back to our loved ones in every lifetime into which we are born.”

“So we never lose them?”

“No, but remember, Harry, the bonds of hate are also strong. If we wish to be free of an enemy forever we must stop hating them. The bond will then break and they won’t bother us in our future lives.”

“I’ll bear that in mind. Goodbye, Taliesin.” He jumped through the portal.

The sun was shining and his stomach was rumbling. It was lunchtime. He made his way to Loz and her partner Sam’s house. Loz opened the door. “Come in. There’s someone I want you to meet.” She led him into the living room. A black puppy was sitting among a flotilla of cushions on the couch. “Sam collected her from the Animal Rescue Centre last night. We thought you might like to choose her name.”  

The puppy’s ears pricked up and she wagged her tail as Harry approached. He sat beside her. She waddled onto his lap and licked his face. He threw his arms around her and whispered, “Hello, Bella.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 149 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, 'Whispers of Magic', available from Hiraeth Books. She also writes song lyrics, mainly comic political satire. Her husband sets these to traditional melodies and he has performed them in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock 'n' roll, Shakespeare and cats.