The last of the daylight was fading as the group of bedraggled figures made their weary way to the church. It was a largish building, under the patronage of Eddi, who had once been a powerful land owner in the area, but whose deeds were now barely remembered even by his own descendants. His sole memorial in the world was this church, built in a small circular hollow which had once belonged to him - Eddiscombe. Who could say how long even that name would endure? Indeed, considering the great dark shadow that had overtaken Northumbria in recent years, the future of the Holy Sanctuary itself was far from certain.
Twilight… Dægbeorht hated twilight. The colours lost their sharpness and seemed to bleed together into an eerie indistinct haze. Shadows lurked where they should not be, and one's eyes, usually such faithful servants, played tricks. Anything could be out there… watching… waiting… they said the elves were strongest at twilight. He shivered as a chill wind shook the trees on either side of the path, transforming them into weird creatures that moaned as they reached out twisted, gnarled fingers towards him. He pulled his coarse woollen cloak tighter around him and resolutely fixed his eyes on the door of the Sanctuary. He hurried along the path, trying not to break into a run.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Dægbeorht and his companions hustled into the doorway. Light from the brilliant lamps positioned around the church hurt their eyes and the air was heavy with the sweet incense burning around the altar. His heart still pounding, Dægbeorht crossed himself and hurried to a position where he could clearly see the small cross carved into the stone inside the church. Piously he bowed his head and awaited the arrival of the priest.
He did not have long to wait. The door behind the division bearing the cross opened, and Godræd entered the main sanctuary. He was simply dressed in plain woollen garments as befitted a monk and he walked slowly, his head bowed. Reaching the altar he paused before lowering his old body onto the cold stone floor, to lie prostrate for a moment before it - Godræd was not a man to do things by half measures - and soon the Mass was underway.
The familiar sound of the Latin made Dægbeorht feel more comfortable. Although he had not the least idea what it meant he felt sure that the words had great power. Here, at least, within the Sanctuary of Christ, he was safe from whatever strange things lurked outside. After all, the cross on the wall was a sign that the White God had claimed this place for His own. No fay thing would dare cross the threshold; and even if it did, there was plenty of holy water by the door, taken from the Lady's Spring near the church, that would be sure to send anything back to the shadowy realms, howling…
Suddenly, Dægbeorht was pulled back to the present as the droning voice spoke familiar words. This at least was something of the protection of Christ that Dægbeorht could take back with him to his farm. He had known these words of power as long as he could remember, and often intoned them, three or nine times in his fields, and so far no great evil had befallen him, or them. And so, now, he joined his voice with the rest of his community.
'Pater noster, qui…'
And still, irreverent as it was, Dægbeorht could not help wondering.... the holy men of Lindisfarne must have known that spell too, and many others besides, and they had been under the protection of many powerful Saints, including Cuthbert himself. Much good it had done them. All dead now, bar a few, and all the splendours of the Abbey stolen or destroyed. Who would ever forget that year who had lived through it? Three summers agone now, it must have been. Great storms and portents. The Thunderer had scarcely been silent...and then demons, surely from hell itself had come. And if God had not seen fit to protect the rich Sanctuary on Lindisfarne, who could guarantee His protection here? Perhaps the monks on the Holy Island had performed their offices incorrectly. He hoped so. He had hung crude crosses and other charms all around his home and regularly recited the Magnificat, and he fervently entreated the protection of the Lady every night, surely he would be safe…'Amen'
Godræd lifted the gilt bronze chalice up above his head and muttered the powerful words which would ensure its transformation into the blood of the blessed Lord Himself. Squinting through the smoke from the incense, curling up and out of sight into the dark roof area, above the light from the lamps, the priest tried to imagine the angels he knew were all around him. Sometimes he wished that they could preach the gospel to these children. Perhaps angels could explain it better than he could, or perhaps his flock would take more notice of them. He sighed. It was a hard mission he had taken upon himself. Truly, these were children, with the understanding of children, always running from shadows, hiding from elves or spirits. They did not understand the power of the Lord of Hosts, who had forever put such fiends to flight - unless, of course, one laid oneself open to their assault. One had only to trust, and victory was assured. But it was he, Godræd, who was faced with the task of bringing these souls, who now looked up at him with frightened, hopeful eyes, to salvation.
Was it his fault if they could not see the truth, if they would not completely abandon their old ways. He knew that if one of them was lost because of something which he had, or had not said or done, he would be held to account. Sometimes he wished that he could be free of this great responsibility, placed on his shoulders by the bishop. He would follow the example of the Holy Cuthbert, withdrawing from the world to meditate in peace on the glory that awaited the faithful.
He shuddered, recalling tales of Cuthbert's many battles with tempting or marauding demons. Perhaps his lot was not so bad. If the angels kept themselves hidden just out of sight, so at least did the demons. He did his job as best he could. No pilgrim on the way to Chester-le-Street passed without hospitality. The Holy well was kept tended, and the church itself was well maintained and fairly well endowed with embroideries from local ladies and a modest amount of church bronze and silver. The church contained a fine reliquary in in gilt and gold, lined with silk and containing a finger of the blessed Aidan himself. And was not Eddiscombe one of the few churches in the kingdom with glazed windows? He smiled at the twinkling reflections of the lamps in the blue and green glass.
And all the souls in his care came to him for help and advice, and all received baptism and the holy Eucharist… things could be worse. And if he occasionally endorsed, or even blessed a second marriage - well - surely God would not smile to see a widow starve? And if the people still gathered evergreens at Yule to ensure that the sun came again in Spring - at least it was Christ that they hailed on Christmas morning, the birth of the Son was celebrated by those who had once welcomed the re-birth of the sun. Still, Godræd could not help being uneasy. It was now the Sixth Age - the end of all things could not be long. Strange signs had been seen in the skies not long since, and surely the demon hordes, from the North, who dared to destroy the Sanctuary of God himself, were proof that order and right would be swallowed up in the darkness that would precede the coming of the Judge of all men. Would he be found wanting? He prayed that he would not. Perhaps through God's mercy the end would not be quite yet - after all, little had been heard of the invaders for the past three years. Perhaps Northumbria had earned a reprieve. More time for him to make these poor, thick headed, frightened farmers understand that the Wonder Lord would accept no half measures. They must put all their trust in Him if they were to enjoy all the delights of the world to come.
Dægbeorht was staring at the smoke. If he looked carefully, through the golden flame dancing light, he could fancy he saw shapes there - angels perhaps? He was drawn back to the real world by a sudden change. The droning Latin which had lulled his mind into near trance had ceased. For the final intercessory prayers before the Mass itself was distributed, the priest had reverted into English, so that all could understand, and join their prayers with his, mounting up as one, like the smoke to heaven. Dægbeorht smiled, as he joined his voice to Godræd's in the one thing in which they were both agreed, '…and deliver us, O Lord from the fury of the Northmen….'