Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Three Saints of Ice

Previously on 'Terra Umbra' - the team experiences unexpected temporal phenomena during a nocturnal vigil in the heart of the mountain. Meanwhile, a freak storm closes the pass, cutting off all communication with the village...

Montsegur – April 28 - 2010

From the private journal of Scarlett Amaris

Finding our way down the darkened path was not so easy. The moonlight streaming through the dense branches made the terrain seem strangely altered and not a little confusing. We descended slowly and carefully before parting the shadowy branches to find ourselves once more at the 'roc du coeur'.

As above: Moon rise over the summit of Bidorta - April 28 - 9.30 pm
So below: Hare Moon over Montsegur -April 29 - 3.00 am

The dead do not rest so easily here and it was the first time in a very long while that I have actually felt fear on the mountain. There was a desolate blackness in that space between the two rocks which during the day had seemed so powerful and holy. I hung back for a moment, not wanting to come into contact with whatever was waiting there. Closing my eyes I crossed through and quickly scrambled up the boulders on the other side to higher ground. We situated ourselves on the highest rock and lit a few candles. Even those small flickers of light could not ease the sense of anxiety that was plaguing me, the need to flee and run back to the safety of the castle.

A thousand ambivalent eyes watched us from the shadows. There were scuffling noises and then the sound of footsteps running away ( two feet – not four although I tried to rationalize it as some kind of animal at first). A branch snapped loudly nearby and then I heard the footsteps running again. Richard went back into the place between the rocks to investigate and I elected to stay and watch the gear on the vantage point. The moon was steadily climbing towards the other side of the mountain and I mused on how difficult it was going to be to find our way back through the dense forest, over the spiny defences to the chateau. It had been my idea to come here on the full moon, and irrationally at that moment I wished that I was anywhere else. It wasn't that I was scared that something truly bad would happen, or that I would be faced with some supernatural phenomena but rather it was knowing that something breathed there, something so old and forgotten that it could not take shape in my mind...

Richard appeared from the darkness.

“All quiet”

“Do you get the feeling that there is something here that might be better left alone..?”

“Whatever the hell it is, it's gone now. At least for the moment ...”

Realizing that the moon was over the castle we started back up the pog. I clambered up the narrow, all but invisible path as quickly as possible and never once glanced back, keeping my eyes glued firmly on the rocky trail in front of me. It was only when I reached the ruined dwellings just above the treeline that I felt I could breathe again.

The courtyard was filled with brilliant moonlight. I walked through the door into this transformed kingdom to come into direct contact with a strangely warm patch of air. It was tactile enough to be able to feel around the edges of it. I stepped away as Richard came through the door and ran smack into the same thing, raising his hand in wonder.

“Can you feel this?”

“I know, I did the exact same thing. It seems to stop over here...”

Other people had described this exact same phenomena before, but this was the first time that I had experienced it. At first I thought that it was something to do with the stones in the keep, but as we wandered away from the walls, we keep running into these tropical 'window area's' approximately every five feet or so which gave a new meaning to playing the game 'hot' and 'cold'. Then the whispering began. It's was a young woman's voice who was speaking very rapidly. We both turned our heads towards the dunjeon room where it seemed to be coming from. It wasn't loud enough to discern any words and the sound rose and fell as if carried by a non-existent wind.

The voice was oddly reassuring. Despite everything we somehow belonged there, safe and secure in the darkness of the early thirteenth century. Whoever she was that whispered to us from the shadows of the castle walls seemed to co-exist with us, with our time and our world. Perhaps on some level she was still human, just as we are but whatever lives beneath the 'Roc du Coer' is dead or perhaps was never alive to begin with. Perhaps it was a place where people went when they were sick, or where they went to die, to become part of the mountain. After we found the path up the sheer face of the pog and that strange, silent avenue of stones we all experienced disorientating and at times disturbing dreams. It was nothing that we could readily see with our naked eyes or apprehend with our waking senses but I think we all felt it in our hearts...

Extracts from private weblog of Richard Stanley

Montsegur – May 1 - 2010

One world and then another, running like the frames in a strip of film or the links in an endless chain. One world treading on the heels of another world that plods just ahead like two dogs walking in each other's tracks in the snow. Like a long, endless row of ball bearings running down a groove, almost touching but not quite. One world's tomorrow, another world's today. And yesterday is tomorrow and the future is the past. Except, according to Dr. Stephen Hawking, there is no past, at least no past that we can reach, save for the figment of remembrance that flits like an eager, night-winged, bat in the fading shadows of our minds.

It's enough, I suppose, that Dr, Hawking reversed his thinking to admit the possibility of time travel to begin with, although he currently subscribes to the notion that time only flows one way, which explains why our paradigm is not already overrun by chrononauts from the future, neatly sidestepping the paradoxical possibility of changing the present by physically interfering with the past and altering the flow of events at source. Na Esclamonda and the castle's other defenders might be able to reach out to us through the mists of time, but, according to the good doctor, we cannot reach back to help them. We cannot step across that invisible line that separates one world from the next.

It has been seven hundred and seventy-seven years since the fall of Montsegur. Seven hundred and seventy-seven worlds stepping in one another's tracks. Although, it would be more than that, if I understand Dr. Hawking's words correctly. A world a day three hundred and sixty-five times seven hundred and seventy-seven. Or maybe one world a minute, or even one world a second. A second is a thick thing, thick enough to separate two worlds. Three hundred and sixty-five times seven hundred and seventy-seven times twenty-four times sixty times sixty. And yet, somewhere in time she lives. Somewhere a field of daisies raise their heads to the bright, spring sunshine. Na Esclarmonda lives and the beautiful Pelegrina de Bruniquel still walks between the rows of her vegetable patch with her water can in hand, somewhere just beyond our sense's further wall...

Once upon a time Bel fires, named in honour of the Gaulish deities Belenos ( 'bright one' ) and his consort Belisama or Belisenna, would have been lit on every high hill in the land on May eve to mark the 'cross-quarter day', the mid-point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice when the herds of livestock were driven out to their summer pastures and mountain grazing lands. Accordingly on Walpurgisnacht we made our way to the highest vista in the village, a forbidding crag known as 'Hannibal's Point' where the famed Carthaginian general and his retinue of elephants is said to have crossed the mountains in days of old. A few minutes before the witching hour a strange, half luminous fog rolled in across the rooftops, filling the valley below like a bowl of dry ice in a black metal music video. Within seconds the landscape seemed utterly transformed, the outlines of the trees and buildings becoming vague and dreamlike, their distant lights splintering into murky, prismatic beams.

For a while we stood stock still, gazing in wonder at the etherial panorama that unfurled before us. Then a cold wind blew in from the high pastures of the Thabor and we recalled Our Lady of the Snows and the story of the 'Three Saints of Ice' or 'Seins de Glace'.

The first of the triad, Saint Mamert was an obscure Viennese archbishop who died in 475 whilst St. Pancras, the best known of the three, was a Roman martyr, beheaded in the year 304 for his Christian beliefs when he was a mere fourteen years of age and who is accordingly celebrated as a saint for children as well as the namesake of one of London's largest and busiest railway terminals. The martyr's body was apparently covered in balsam before being interred in a sepulcher in the catacombs of Rome while his head was placed in a reliquary that still exists today in the basilica of San Pancrazio.

Along with Saint Servais or Servatius ( above ), the first bishop of Maastricht who brought Christianity to the Low Countries after ordering a church to be built over a Roman temple to Fortuna and Jupiter, the trio are jointly known as the 'Ice Saints' whose feast days fall respectively on the 11th, 12th and 13th of May, or at least they did until the Catholic church supposedly disavowed them for being a little too pagan. Their reign coincides with what is commonly known as the 'Pink Moon' or 'lune rousse', a word derived from “roussir” which means to turn brown, marking a period when nocturnal temperatures can plummet, spelling death to seedlings and fragile young plants.

Above: Self with Beltane Fire Society founder Mark Oxbrow - circa 1995

Back in the day when I was still dressing up as a orc and designing and executing pyrotechnic displays for the Beltane Fire Society whose yearly gatherings on Edinburgh's Carlton hill involved a good three hundred scantily clad or near naked performers, drawing crowds of fifteen thousand or more, we used to take pride in the fact that our May eve celebrations were never derailed by rain or wind whereas the Druid's solstice sun wheel ceremony at Stonehenge was habitually drenched despite taking place a lot further south and a good two months later in the calender. Mother Nature always seemed to provide the Beltane crew with an appropriate weather window, a brief respite from the cold ( described by American horror author Stephen King as a 'strawberry spring', a 'false spring' or 'lying spring' ) before turning nasty again and blasting the very buds from the trees. At the time we kidded ourselves into believing that perhaps we were doing something right and our gaudy offerings had been accepted by the goddess but the sad wisdom that comes with age tells me that the clement conditions we experienced year after year had more to do with our fortuitous timing in relationship to the earth’s annual orbital trajectory which passes thereafter through a thick band of cosmic dust that may or may not be left over from the formation of the planets, rather than any hypothetical divine blessing.

Shortly after midnight we began to feel the first drops of rain against our faces and by dawn it had become a downpour. Yet despite the abrupt turn in the weather we were far from being the only celebrants abroad that night. In the cold light of day we came across a damp ring of embers beside the crossroads at Morenci, in the shade of the jagged rock known as 'Dentilhero', the natural spur that crowns the forested crest that rises to the northeast of the pog, which, in all probability, served in ancient times as a place of worship dedicated to the sun god Belenos himself. ( * see 'The Hand of Morenci' ) By the time we reached the hilltop whoever had lit the fire was long gone and we couldn't help wondering whether or not similar beacons had blazed atop Cardou, Canigou, Bugarach and Bidorta. The Beltane fog had simply been too thick for us to be able to see anything beyond the immediate confines of our valley.

Last week we were happily basking in the full heat of the Meridianal sun and have the tan lines to prove it but by this morning the snow outside our front door lay a good two feet deep and is still falling thick and fast as I write. The trees, already laden with their spring leaves, can scarcely bear the weight of the gathering snow and seem to be taking nose dives left, right and centre. While strolling in the fields above the Lasset this morning we watched as one of the listing trunks gave way and fell heavily across the path not a hundred yards from us as if it had been torn from its roots by some invisible behemoth. Another tree toppled across the power lines, abruptly plunging the entire village into freezing blackness.

As above: Miss Scarlett and Jericho - the secret ruler of Montsegur

So below: All work and no play makes Richard a dull boy...

Both the cell and land lines have been cut and we spent much of the afternoon crouched beside Madame Couquet's hearth, warming ourselves by the light of a dismembered chair and a couple of logs dragged up from the store room. After spending most of my life wishing I were back in the dark ages it comes as a bracing reminder of just how brutal life can be without the creature comforts of the 21st century. The wind races in the eaves and a shingle rattles as the wind marches across the roof with tripping, dancing feet. The pass is closed and we huddle closer to the embers as the fireplace talks with its sooty throat of other days, of other folk and other winds while outside the streets of Montsegur lie silent, wrapped in the chilly, choking embrace of the three Saints of Ice...

To be continued...

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