The Beast of St John's Cove by Wentworth M Johnson

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The Beast of St John's Cove

Chapter 1

Fair’s Eve

They call the path the Selanguine Gate, though no one really knows why. Nothing and no one ever used the path, save for one. The fear of what lay in residence at its end chills all men to the bone. Only the feeder travelled that route. Once every month the oxcart would rumble noisily along the uneven road, over the precarious bridge across the Limes River and on to Parricidium; so named by Brother David as it is Latin for the place of death. It had once been known as St Johns Cove. What the cart carried, everyone knew but no one cared, at least not enough to speak of it.

With a chuckle the blind man sat on the river’s bank seemingly watching with gleeful anticipation. The birds sang and the insects chirped as the sun rose in a cloudless, blue sky. With a smile he fidgeted uneasily on the grassy bank for now he could hear the rumble of the oxcart as it approached once more upon its grisly sojourn.

On time the wagon appeared from the wooded path and moved along the dirt road atop the riverbank. As it turned to cross the rickety old bridge of the Selanguine Gate, one of its heavy solid wooden wheels slipped sideways toward the river. In a trice the cart overturned and the driver leapt from the falling vehicle. The naked body of a woman appeared, as if from nowhere, and was catapulted into the reeds.

With its almighty weight the two-wheeled cart turned up-side-down shattering the shaft and dragline. Both oxen ambled on as though nothing had happened. The driver’s leap had taken him into deep water and with his sword, heavy mail, and metal buckled boots, he quickly sank into the murky depths. The cart made its last turn and settled in the mud and reeds at the tidal river’s edge. Blind Eavan leapt to his feet with excitement gripping his body. “May ye cowardly knaves rot in the arms of the river demon,” he yelled at the top of his voice.

All returned to a tranquil summer’s quietness, as the oxen ambled on their way continuing the monthly walk to Pericardium. How could humanity sink to such depths of depravity? Had God abandoned his children? Mayhap the Devil had conquered the world and driven the people to such an all-time low, where brother murders brother and neighbours devour the daughters of the unprotected.

Only a year had passed since the terrible event. Eavan sat back on the bank to contemplate the crooked path of human folly. “Oh God why hast thou forsaken us?” he said, tears trickling from his sightless eyes.

His thoughts drifted to the time when he walked on the beach of St John’s Cove, with eyes that could see, that fateful summer’s day, a year ago. Above him, that day, stood the cliffs of the Cove town and the castle of Sir Rufus de Grange. His eyes fell on what at first looked like an animal skulking near the rocks at the base of the cliff. Nonchalantly he walked toward it but soon became pained and shocked. The fur was the hair of a damsel. She lay naked and quite dead.

It seemed evident, by the damage that she had fallen from the top of the cliff and had been dashed to death on the rocks. The tide had not yet claimed the body and hidden it from sight. Closer inspection revealed that teeth had inflicted some of the wounds. Eavan stood astonished by what he saw. Teeth, and human teeth at that, had made these marks. What manor of beast could have inflicted such damage? The answer lay beyond his comprehension.

Eavan felt perplexed suddenly. If he were to carry the dead damsel to the village, who was to say that he was not the one who inflicted the wounds? The past had shown him that it was easy to be blamed for the misdeeds of others. Yet if he were to leave her it would be a moral indignity. No matter whom she had been or what she had done, she deserved absolution and a Christian burial.

For many moments he stood looking at the wretched soul trying to weigh up in his mind which course of action he should follow. Eavan decided to pretend he had not found her, even though in his heart he knew this to be a bad judgment. He was ashamed that he lacked the moral courage to do what he knew to be right. “Eavan the Gutless,” he said under his breath as he walked to where the cliff descended to the ocean.

The village of St John’s Cove was prosperous with many corpulent and rotund villains. He stopped at the base of the ascending path, turned and looked out to sea. The sandbar, though mostly invisible, could often be seen at low tide. It appeared dark against the shining water. Eavan looked up at St John’s Cove; William the Conqueror had given all the land hereabouts to Eavan’s great grandfather as a reward for his service to the king. This was documented in The Domesday Book, which in itself was an honour, as many larger manors did not even warrant an entry to themselves.

He looked back towards the sea, but the hapless body lay beyond sight at this point. Eavan felt sure he knew all the villagers, but did not recognize the dead girl. Tomorrow was to be the annual feast and there would be hundreds of strangers in town. Perhaps the body will wash back upon the beach tomorrow. With a shrug he marched off in the direction of the castle, his ancestral home.

St John’s Cove had almost always been a prosperous habitat with work for all. The very poorest would dig lead from the hill in Griffin’s Cave. After smelting, it could be sold for a grand profit in any of the larger towns. Often times a ship would get stuck on the sandbar after encountered unfavourable tides and wind. The ship would yield much value to those daring enough to row out to the wreck and the crew would be accommodated in the village until they were able to leave.

However, what made the village one of the richest was Eavan’s father, Rufus de Grange; he was as cunning as he was old. It was always thought that he had a secret gold mine or that perhaps there was a secret vein of gold in Griffin’s Cave. He never missed a tax payment and treated the people in his fief exceptionally well.

The castle looked impressive as it sat up above the village on the side of Old Glen, the rugged mountain. A small stream trickled from the hills and made a pool just east of the castle, then in a small river wound its way to the west of the castle and over the cliff into the sea. Eavan stood and looked about him. It was a good village with happy people; there was no slavery here.

Rufus de Grange’s father had built a magnificent church in Norman style with solid rock hewn from Old Glen, to replace the older structure at Yaxley. The church of Saint John spanned east to west, with its splendid tower to the west overlooking the cliff. At the centre of the village, in a cleared square of ground, stood St Bedric’s Cross; no one knew why it was called St Bedric’s Cross, nor even who put it there.

Legend has it that a griffin lived above St John’s Cove thousands of years ago and built its nest in the cave where the people now mined lead. It was said that one day the beast would rise and devour the people. Nobody worried, few actually believed, but all knew the story. The local inn was known as ‘The Griffin’, but not to mock, more in respect. Beyond the stream the ground sloped steeply uphill to the castle’s earthwork defences; never, in living history, had there actually been a fight in the secluded valley on the edge of the sea.

Thoughts of the dead girl burned deep into Eavan’s mind, but he feared the pointing fingers, if he should report it. At length he stopped at the castle gate, turned and looked back at his village. Although he was only twenty his father already showed signs of decline and being the elder of two brothers and the only son of true de Grange blood, it would fall upon him to become master of the fief.

He turned and entered the cold stone edifice. Almost all the floors and ceilings were of wood and mounted on sturdy oak beams. The main corridor to the right was stone and father’s room was stone. His mother Isabella of Leeds often, on warm days, sat in the quadrangle, being roofless if afforded light for fine needlework. She was a good and kindly woman with deep religious beliefs. She brought her children up in the strictest Christian faith. Sir Rufus de Grange was also a kindly soul but many years senior to his wife.

Eavan’s younger adopted brother, by two years; Edgith, was wild and unruly. He would often play cruel practical jokes on the unwary. His temper was wild and violent. Once he actually struck his mother in one of his rages and was severely reprimanded by Rufus.

“Never strike a woman,” yelled the old man. “For such perverse behaviour I shall have thy hand cut off. A man never need strike any person weaker than himself.”

Those words echoed around the castle. Eavan could still hear them. A man, with the emphasis on ‘man’, would never strike any person weaker than himself. Though trained in swordplay, Eavan had never actually swung at any man other than his teacher, the master at arms, although, all knew him to be skilled in the art of swordplay. Once while hunting, the sight of the blood on an injured huntsman made him sick to his stomach but Edgith loved and wallowed in the experience.

Eavan knew in his heart that he could use the sword but only to honour the Lord God. To take a life was a sin beyond his reason. He could not get the thought of the dead girl on the beach out of his mind. His mother sat working on her endless tapestry on the south side of the building, which enjoyed the greatest sunlight.

“You look worried my son,” she said looking up at Eavan as he entered. “Come, sit, and tell me thy woes.”

Eavan sat opposite the elegant woman knowing that he could never hide his emotions from her. “Mother” he began. “I would pose a question.”

“Yes?”

He sucked his bottom lip for a few seconds attempting to organize the thoughts in his head. “I propose a dilemma,” he said.

She smiled. “This is someone else’s problem?”

“No, I just surmise.”

“Very well my son.”

“If a man of position were to find a dead maiden,” he said pensively.

She placed her work on her knee and stared him in the eyes. “What killed this maiden?”

“I do not know, let us suppose, something or someone evil.”

“Then, I see no problem. Any man of honour would report the affair to the sheriff and leave it in his competent hands.”

“But, mayhap, he would be blamed as he had been in the past; having no proof it was not he who harmed the damsel.”

She exhaled loudly. “Son, my bold and oldest son, what is it that ails you so?”

“Nothing.”

“So when did you find this dead maiden?”

His eyes sparkled with the fire of guilt and his breath came in short gulps. “I vow I did no harm, madam.”

“Tell me, son, so I may judge for myself.”

“This very day, Madam.”

“And where did this occur?”

“I found her on the beach at the base of the cliff under St John’s yard. She lay dead on the rocks.”

“Why should this terrify you so? Hast thee never seen a dead woman before?”

Again he sucked in his bottom lip and then exhaled loudly. “Yes Mother.”

“Then tell the unusual. What was it about this damsel that so frightened you?”

“The maiden was naked and had unusual injuries.”

His mother was silent for a moment. “You have reasoned an explanation and it is this which frightens you so?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“I reasoned that she frolicked with some man and he bit her and frightened her so as to make her flee. In the darkness of the night she ran over the cliff and died there on the rocks below.”

“When did this occur?”

“I found her this hour, the body was still fresh, but the eyes have been devoured by seagulls.”

“Why was she not taken by the tide?”

“I reasoned Madam, as it is only now the tide is returning, therefore, it could be as long ago as six hours.”

She reached over the table and took his hand. “Then why do you think it was at night?”

“The villagers are abroad at sunrise. Surely someone would notice a naked woman running about. If not, then it must have been in the dark hours before dawn.”

Mother nodded in agreement. “But last night was the full moon and there would have been plenty of light to see.”

“I swear the carcass was fresh otherwise the tide would have taken it.”

“So what is thy quandary? You did the woman no harm.”

“If I were to bring the body in, the pointing fingers and slanderous tongues would implicate me in the loathsome deed.”

Mother took a deep breath. “I think my son you should be braver, manlier. If you did not shave every whisker from thy face, and stand more erect, people would respect you more.”

“I do not think people will blame me because I shave, besides ’tis the fashion.”

“Look at your brother he is a man people respect. No one dare to accuse him of such a vile deed, lest he turn on them. Your father was master of this whole fief by your age.”

“Aye, and had more women than meals,” Eavan snarled. “Who is to say that Edgith is not of his seed sown wild?”

“I fear that you are the evil one and your tongue will surely become your noose. Why have you not finished the work at Yaxley?”

“Oh, come on, Mother, it is but a stinking ruin left derelict and without the smallest care for over fifty years. Who would wish to live there?”

She picked up her work again and began sewing. “Any castle would have been acceptable to your father. I am ashamed of you. Go tell your woes to the priest of St John’s. Mayhap he can do something with your insolent mouth.”

Eavan slowly stood, politely bowed to his mother and left the room. He could not understand why life was so unfair. He was better educated than his brother Edgith. He was a far better swordsman and a better sportsman at both joust and unarmed combat, yet he did not command respect, as did his brother. Edgith was always out fighting and chasing the local whores. Eavan did not partake of any of those activities.

Yaxley was an old village—the original manor resting a mile or so the other side of the Limes River. Eavan had been commissioned by his father to refurbish the castle, which had suffered a fire half a century before. Disheartened he walked to his room in the west tower. It was time to contemplate the prospects and future action. Already he had decided not to report the dead damsel to any other person.

For a while he stood at the arrow slit staring down at the work in progress for the feast tomorrow. A gentle tap sounded at his door. “Come in,” he commanded.

The door opened slowly and in walked his father dressed in light armour, mail and leather. “I wish to speak with you, my son,” he said.

“Come in, Father, make yourself comfortable.” He knew the old man was not always in charge of all his faculties and so treated him gently.

The old man closed the door, walked to the canopied bed and eased his tired bones down onto its boards. “Son,” he said. “I have a very serious matter to discuss with you. Come and sit.”

“Sir,” Eavan said. “I have had all the sermons my mind can withstand.”

“Sit ye, and pay me some respect.”

Eavan walked over to the bed and sat opposite his aged father. “I am tired, my father and worry for the things I have seen this day.”

“Listen. I have arranged your betrothal. It is time to beget progeny. I have to consider the future.”

“I need no wife.”

“Are you like King Coeur-De-Lion and fancy not the soft comfort of a woman?”

“No sir. I respect Richard, but no, sire, I will follow your wishes.”

“Good,” the old man said with a sigh. “Edgith is a good lad but too… playful. I wish you to settle and have many children, but the castle at Yaxley is far from finished. I wish you would become assertive. Finish the job. It is to be your own manor.”

Eavan felt displeased. “But sire it is but a cast-off, a relic. Do you actually expect me to reside there?”

“Yes. Rebuild, I have given you the money. Rebuild. It is a good and solid castle. This one shall still be yours one day, but I have a little time left. I shall reside with your mother here. It will give you a chance to be lord over your own manor before you are lord of the whole fief.”

“I am not pleased, my father, that you treat me so.”

“The fief will be yours. I want you to be a man and stop mooning. I hazard that you have yet to bed a wench.”

Eavan exhaled loudly. “It is none of your business old man.”

“Oh, but it is. The maiden I have chosen for thee is fifteen; the same age as thy mother when I first bedded her. She will be here in six weeks. The wedding will be the day she arrives. I will have it no other way.”

“But I have never met her,” Eavan moaned.

“Argue not. She is a fair wench I have seen her. She will please you in every way. I will have a grandson by this time next year. I do not ask it, I demand it.”

“Yes, sire.”

The old man stood up and walked back to the door, turning he waved a finger at Eavan. “Your brother is the Devil. I want your loins, not his, to sprinkle de Grange seed in the proverbial soil of our future.”

Eavan nodded in compliance and watched the old man leave. His thoughts were of higher things than women; he longed to be a man of God and join a holy order, but now he felt that he was doomed. Eavan would be the one who would replace the drudgery and monotony of his father’s life. Again he returned to the arrow slit and observed the labours below.

Eavan had yet to see a woman who could command his interest. They were all empty-headed, giggling frolics or sullen and pious like his mother. “God,” he said aloud. “Where do you lead me now?” The thought of having to spend every night with an obedient mindless bride was sickening.

He knew that he should go to St John’s church and confess all to Brother David, but what was the point? Someone would find the dead damsel and all would be well, with or without his involvement. In days of old, men led far more exciting lives, he thought. For in the old days the griffin was abroad and gave any man with a sword a purpose in life.

He walked to his bed and lay down even though it was early in the day. His thoughts were melancholy and downhearted; life seemed so unfair, so pointless. Perhaps his mood of uncommon discouragement was because the day started badly and seemed to be getting worse. A bride he didn’t want and a house that no one wanted to live in was nothing more than an insult to a man of noble blood.

Eavan felt the urge to escape suddenly—perhaps he would run away and join the crusades. To fight for Christ and Christianity, this could be the life he desired despite what he had said to his father earlier. Taken by the thought he marched from his room and to the stables. They had many horses and the yard was always manned. Mordric politely bowed. “A horse, sire?” he inquired.

“Yes.”

Quickly the groom prepared a horse and without a by-your-leave, Eavan mounted then rode off. Across the yard and passed the sentry at the edge of the earthworks, he rode through the ford where the stream passed the castle and to the square where St Bedric’s Cross stood. The Selanguine Gate was rutted and well worn as it wound its way through the light forest to the Limes River.

He stopped his horse on the rickety bridge and looked seaward. The Limes was a tidal river and at low tide just a trickle but at high tide it became a wide and dangerous stretch of water. A cold feeling of trepidation began to enfold his heart. He saw much beauty and serenity in this countryside that would eventually be his. Slowly the horse ambled on along the riverbank and turned into the wooded path toward Yaxley, which lay just beyond the crossroads. It was a forlorn place that had been sacked and burned by the Vikings, trampled on by Harold, decimated by the Normans and then rebuilt by them in stone. Now all that was left was a ruined castle, the village and church had moved long ago to St John’s Cove. Yaxley Castle stood alone, large and sprawling; the horse ambled up the hill as if it knew where Eavan should be going. At the top he dismounted and surveyed the countryside.

The horse did not need to be tethered; it munched happily on the lush and ample grass. Eavan stood at the edge of his castle. There was no work performed anywhere in the fief today for this week was a week of celebration and rejoicing. Yaxley was not so bad—perhaps he could make a profitable manor here. Everything a man could desire was at hand with ample wood, good land, and the sea not too far distant.

With good men, happy families, and a little Christian luck this place could be a

good village. It was his father that made St John’s a happy a prosperous manor within his fief. “I shall do you proud,” he shouted at the top of his voice. “By God I shall do you proud.”