When Shepley’s wagon was almost close enough to draw the villagers out to begin the procession, Banan broke the silence. “Do you really think this is necessary?” Banan asked. “Isn’t it a bad omen to have such cold weather this early in the season?”
“Yes,” said Alden, leaving Banan wondering which question Alden had answered and knowing that it was both. People began to shamble into the square and gather around the hay wagon. Many carried skimming ladles or long spoons while the rest came empty handed.
“Something doesn’t feel right this time,” Banan said to Alden. “We have always taken this duty seriously, but at least we made it an event for merriment. Perhaps we could wait until…”
“We must not wait too late,” Alden said. “Not again.”
“You still don’t believe that Daegal’s wife ran off, do you?” Banan asked.
“You know as well as I, Banan, that Daegal was beating the poor girl.”
“I also know that you loved her,” said Banan.
Alden brushed his unruly hair from his prematurely age-lined face and felt in his pocket for the piece of silk hidden there. He stroked the fine material, a scrap of the one decent gift he had ever been able to give the lovely Esma. He thought of her wearing the bright red kerchief with her honey colored hair streaming out around it. It was little enough, but it had been all Alden could afford.
When Daegal came to claim the lands of his deceased uncle, he flashed his wealth about the village. He dazzled the young women and was free with small gifts, but he fixed upon Esma as the one he wanted for his wife. Alden loved her, but he knew that he could never give her a life such as Daegal could provide, and in the end he let her go. Esma told Alden that she would be happy with him, but he saw how deeply she sighed when she saw the finery Daegal offered. Daegal made the girl his wife. He made her his servant. Then she disappeared.
“Let’s get this started,” Alden said. He stepped up on the hay wagon and called out to the small crowd, “Who will play the skimmington?” The villagers looked at their shoes, volunteers for the role of skimmington uncharacteristically lacking. An custom from an earlier time, the procession had a serious purpose, usually to reprimand an abusive husband or overly nagging wife, but it had always been an occasion for mirth as well. One would play the role of the accused, the skimmington, and the others would feign beating him with their spoons and skimming ladles. The mockery was a gentle way of cajoling a neighbor into proper behavior, and usually it worked. But no one wanted to confront Daegal.
There was silence until a scarecrow of a man leaped into the wagon with Alden and doffed his hat to the crowd. “I will be your skimmington, Master Alden,” the man said with a bow. Alden looked at Banan who scowled and shook his head. Alden looked at the crowd, silently pleading for someone else to assume the role, then he turned back to the man who waited with yellowed grin.
“Very well, Treddian,” said Alden before jumping from the wagon and moving to the head of the crowd. Banan, who was still shaking his head at the choice of the skimmington, walked beside Alden who motioned with his arm to begin the procession. They moved westward along the winding track that would lead to Daegal’s house outside the village, the townsfolk keeping pace with the plodding ox while Treddian stomped out a merry jig in the hay wagon.
“You had to choose the idiot for our skimmington,” Banan said to Alden, who remained silent.
Banan surveyed the small group, not above a dozen people. “Do you think more will join us on the way?”
“No,” said Alden, “I think that Treddian is the only idiot in the village.”
Banan looked at Alden’s wry smile and lightly punched his friend in the arm, though even a friendly blow from Banan was enough to knock Alden off balance.
“I meant more villagers for the procession,” Banan said. He looked over the small group again. Usually this event brought out thirty or better not counting the children who skipped and played along with the crowd. But there were no children today.
“More will join,” said Alden, looking ahead to where already two bent figures wrapped in threadbare cloaks were waiting on the side of the road. Farmer Keallach and his wife, both in hooded cloaks, joined in the procession. They were followed by Flynn the blacksmith and his oldest son, Ruanaidh. As they approached the churchyard Alden saw more waiting.
Abbot Renweard, his snowy hair blowing in the cold wind, threaded his way through the weathered tombstones and out of the churchyard, where he went straight to Alden and Banan. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do, Alden?” the Abbot asked. “It’s not just…”
“Revenge?” Alden finished for him.
“You know Daegal as well as we do, Abbot Renweard,” said Banan. “Alden would not call the skimmington without good reason.” Banan was not sure of Alden’s intentions at all, but he would give his friend the benefit of the doubt.
Abbot Renweard stood back and blessed the crowd. As the Abbot gave his benediction, Alden stared into the churchyard at the rows of silent stones. When they had searched for Esma the only trace found was a scrap of the red silk cloth from her kerchief caught on a thorn in the woods near Daegal’s house. Alden had carried it with him since that day. In a moment of despair, he had once contemplated burying the scrap near the tiny village church, but he could not bear to part with it.
When the abbot had finished, several people filed through the iron gate and onto the road. There was Forba, the widow of Gavin, and her handmaiden Tam. Two others who were covered as completely as possible appeared to be the shoemaker and possibly the chandler. A woman in a long, hooded cloak, dirty white and too thin for the cold, joined the group as well as Gertrude and one of her daughters, he couldn’t tell which.
The procession resumed in silence save the tinny chants from Treddian who called out, “I am Daegal, man of strife. See, I like to beat my wife.” Several villagers crossed themselves or rubbed charms while others muttered under their breath.
“The skimmington has come for you,” Treddian continued, kicking up his legs, “Will you kill wife number two?”
“ENOUGH,” called both Alden and Banan. Treddian settled for just his merry dance with an occasional hoot of joy.
Alden stared at Daegal’s house as the skimmington approached. A stream of smoke issued from the brick chimney, billowing around the roof then disappearing in the wind. In it Alden imagined he could see Esma’s beautiful face and the smile that had disappeared shortly after her marriage to Daegal. Soon the bruises appeared and the girl refused to speak to anyone, especially Alden, but she wore the bright red silk kerchief that had been Alden’s gift to his true love. He had known then that he should call the skimmington, but his fear of being seen as a vengeful, jilted lover stayed his hand.
The wagon squeaked to a halt near the house, and Treddian hooted and laughed. “I am Daegal, man of strife,” he started before Banan took over. Alden was grateful that Banan had taken the lead, for his own heart was pounding. He dreaded the site of Daegal’s smug face, that cruel visage that had twisted into a knowing grin as he told the constable that Esma had run off. Esma, who had never traveled more than five miles from the village in all her short life.
Alden stroked that fading piece of cloth in his pocket as Daegal opened his door and greeted the unwelcome group with his baleful smile. He opened his mouth and took a large bite from a brown-spotted apple, then with his mouth still full he pointed to Treddian and said, “This mush-brained piece of filth is the best you could find to mock me?”
“I am Daegal, man of strife,” sang Treddian, “See I like to beat my…”
Treddian’s last word was muffled by the slap of the half rotten apple that caught him on the side of the head.
“Daegal,” said Banan, “We your neighbors have found your behavior to be unacceptable.”
“Save your speeches, Banan,” Daegal said as he approached the group. “My behavior is none of your concern. Aah, there you are, Alden. I knew that you would be behind this. And behind Banan as usual.”
Alden stepped toward Daegal, but Banan held him back with a muscular arm. “We won’t let you kill another wife, Daegal,” spat Alden.
“If you refer to Esma,” Daegal said, “That ungrateful wench ran off. And as for my present wife, she became my property the day we were wed.”
A collective exhalation of grief from the villagers turned Alden’s attention to the doorway of Daegal’s house. Daegal’s new wife, the only child of Seaton, a poor farmer who had died two months past, stood at the door. Her ragged dress barely covered her rail thin body, and her hollow bloodshot eyes stood out against her sallow skin, though a deep brown bruise surrounded one of those eyes.
“Get back inside,” Daegal hissed. The girl disappeared and Alden lunged for Daegal who knocked the younger man to the ground. Daegal stepped forward. “You have no business here,” he shouted at the cowering villagers. “Be gone,” he yelled, and several of the villagers shrank back.
Even Treddian cowered in the wagon as Daegal berated them, and with each expletive he shouted, they took another step back. The exception was the woman in the stained ivory cloak who had joined the procession at the churchyard. Daegal bared his teeth in a hateful grin of triumph then turned toward this woman.
Daegal turned on her and spat, “Step back you…” He faltered, his brow furrowing as he cocked his head to look more closely at this figure. She raised her head until he could see beneath her hood, and his mouth opened slowly, the lower jaw quivering. The woman in the cloak reached into the hay wagon and took the long ladle from Treddian. She raised it over her head, the metal glinting though the day was dark and overcast, then she brought it down on Daegal’s head.
Where there should have been a hollow metallic ring, there was instead a dull solid thud. Daegal staggered back and scrabbled at the wagon for support. The woman whipped the ladle across his surprised face, and everyone heard the crunch of bone and cartilage. Daegal tried to stand but only managed a crawling lunge. The crowd was frozen.
Again the ladle reached toward the sky and came crashing down with unearthly strength. The blows came faster now, Daegal’s bones snapping with every swing. The woman’s hood flew back and revealed her deathly white skin and the moss dangling from her ragged hair. The shred of red silk stood stark against her pale neck.
“Esma,” whispered Alden. A villager screamed and the crowd broke into a frenzied retreat toward town. Shepley tried to turn his ox cart and nearly ran over Alden in his fright.
Treddian danced and pointed at Daegal’s body. “I am Daegal, man of strife,” he sang in a higher pitch, “My ghost-wife has just took my life.” He fell backward as the hay wagon bore him away.
Banan abandoned his attempts to calm the fleeing villagers and looked for Alden who had now regained his footing. Alden stepped over Daegal’s broken body and looked for Esma, but she had disappeared in the chaos.
“There,” said Banan, laying a hand on Alden’s shoulder and pointing toward the woods. Alden saw the whisper of woman that he had once loved fading into the trees, and ran after her. Banan, though hesitant, followed his friend.
They buried Esma’s bones in the churchyard, having followed the spirit to the bog where they lay. Alden had run through briars and brambles, the thorns tearing at his clothing and flesh alike until he came to where the wraith knelt upon the ground. She looked at Alden and clutched the silk then bent over her unmarked grave. As Alden stepped closer the white cloak became nothing but fog that drifted away on the wind.
The remains had not been buried deep. The skull was split and the skeletal hands still clung to the remaining scrap of silk. Abbott Renweard blessed the remains more than once, and most of the villagers that attended the burial asked to be blessed as well before returning to their homes.
Alden reached into the coffin and touched a skeletal cheekbone, then he opened his fist and dropped his fragment of cloth among the disassembled bones. The lid was placed on Esma’s coffin, and the nails were pounded in, each hammer stroke echoing deep into Alden’s mind.
©May 2016 B. C. Nance
B. C. Nance is a native of Nashville, Tennessee where he is an archaeologist specializing in historic sites. He writes fiction and poetry in his spare time and has been published in the Writer's Post Journal, the anthology Filtered Through Time, and has had a story accepted for Inwood, Indiana (pending publication). Nance is a newcomer to Swords & Sorcery.