As a thank you for your continued support through some rough times. I appreciate you all more than I can ever say. This story is historical paranormal and will eventually be released under my pseudonym, Elisabeth Junot. I hope you enjoy it!!!
BENEATH BLACK WATER, BURNING
Bone crunched beneath John Keats’s fist and the would-be thief cursed in Gaelic, a curse which ended in a pained whoof when Keats’s other fist slammed into the brigand’s thick gut. The thief doubled over and Keats swung again, a solid punch to the temple followed by a sharp upper-cut.
The thief dropped like a stone into the rain-wet grass.
Keats spun around, bouncing on the balls of his bare feet, bloodied fists up, pulse thundering in his ears. The thief’s companion, eyes wide, suddenly whirled and pelted across the grass, up the cobblestone path and into the ruined nunnery as if seeking shelter from the devil.
Charles Brown laughed. “By Christ, Keats, for a pagan poet, you win more converts for God with your pugilistic prowess than all the prayers in Christendom!”
Keats slowly lowered his fists. He blew out his breath and unclenched his hands. He glanced at Brown, noted his unblemished knuckles. “And what were you doing while I defended the honor of our knapsacks?”
“Enjoying a bit of entertainment.” Brown grinned. “Bravo, sir, well done!”
“Perhaps I might be compelled to scribble a few lines immortalizing the event,” Keats said, flicking not-so-imaginary bits of dirt and leaves from his coat. “Hmmm. I wonder who the hero should be?”
“Why the man who guarded his friend’s back during the fierce melee, of course.”
Keats laughed. “Of course.”
“Now help me find my spectacles,” Brown said, wiping rain from his face. “I seem to have lost them during the fierce melee.”
“In a moment.” Keats turned around and nudged the fallen would-be thief with his foot. A low groan drifted up from the grass. “Perhaps next time you’ll think twice before judging a man’s strength by his size,” he said quietly.
Keats picked up his knapsack, then slung it over his shoulder. Tossing his wet hair back from his face, he scanned the ground for Brown’s spectacles. He moved carefully, mud squelching cold between his toes. His shoes and stockings were tucked in his knapsack safe and dry along with his paper and letters.
Brown, a brilliant blot of plaid amongst the green grass and rain-darkened gray stone, hunched along, his gaze on the ground. Unless the spectacles had wings, Keats doubted they’d traveled very far.
He returned to the site of the brief fight, the thief’s bulk a faerie mound rising up out of the grass. Positioning himself where Brown had been standing, Keats studied the ground. In the distance, the sea boomed against the rocks and the air smelled of brine and peat smoke. He coughed, his throat irritated and a little sore. He pulled the damp scarf wrapped around his neck a little tighter.
Rain glistened on metal. There! Keats bent and scooped up the spectacles. “Found them!” he called. The lenses were smeared and dirty, but the frames were undamaged.
“Bravo again!” Brown straightened and hurried across the grass.
Keats took a step back and pain lanced into his heel, searing along his nerves to the knee. Trying to jump away from whatever he’d stepped on, Keats slipped in the rain-slick grass and fell hard on his ass. His teeth clicked together.
Brown cried, “My spectacles!” He dashed to Keats’s side. “I mean, my poor friend!”
“We’re fine,” Keats muttered. His teeth ached. He handed Brown the damned spectacles, then drew his foot up and examined it. A red mark indented the heel, but the skin wasn’t broken. Most likely a bruise – not a pleasant thing while on a walking tour of Scotland.
“Do you need a hand up?” Brown asked.
“No, thank you.” Keats wiped his face dry with his coat sleeve and studied the ground. Nothing. Rising to his knees, he felt along the ground with his fingers. His fingertips brushed against a hard curve hidden in the grass. Something embedded in the soil.
“Did you lose something?” Brown asked.
“Only my common sense,” Keats said, digging around the object. He wiggled it, then dug a little more. Wiggled. Dug.
“Oh, you never had any of that to lose, my dear Junkets.”
“Asking for another demonstration of pugilistic prowess?” Keats murmured, his lowered head hiding his smile.
“More than anything! Has another thief arrived, then?”
Rain soaked the knees of Keats’s trousers, but a dark thrill curled through him as he imagined what the ancient abbey’s grounds might be giving up – a shin bone from a long dead Scottish king – a heretic, perhaps, since this wasn’t part of the cemetery – a faerie queen’s hidden wand, a piece of Celtic pottery or –
The thing suddenly came loose, sucking free of the mud and grass and nearly knocking Keats onto his backside. He stared at what he held in his hands. Mud-smeared and grimy, a long and slender cylindrical shape. Frowning, he wiped at the mud. It looked like –
As if whispered from warm lips pressed against his ear, a heated word blazed through Keats’s mind and sparked fire along his spine: Caledfwlch. His breath caught in his throat.
“Is that a scabbard?” Brown asked. “An empty scabbard?”
“Yes,” Keats breathed. He jumped to his feet. Pain jabbed his heel.
“Ah, yes, quite a find. An empty scabbard. Thrilling, utterly.”
Keats tossed Brown a dark look. “You’re jealous.” He snugged his knapsack higher on his shoulder and picked up his walking stick.
“Well, of course I am. What’s not to be jealous of, after all?” Brown held his glasses up to the gray sky and peered at them. Frowning, he lowered them and rubbed the lenses with his scarf again.
“Let’s take it to the sea and wash it off,” Keats said. He turned and collided with something warm and solid and stinking of sweat. Pain blossomed in his chest. He looked up into the would-be thief’s bloodied face. A hard face and cold, with frost-etched eyes and an icicled smile.
“Honestly, why bother with…” Brown’s words trailed off.
Keats staggered back a step and the knife slid free from between his ribs. It glistened with blood. He pressed a hand to the wound, unable to look away from the thief’s dark eyes.
“Neither size o’ the man nor his strength matters if ye have a knife, boy,” the thief said. “But I ken ye’ll not live long enough to ponder on it twice.”
The thief . . . no . . . murderer spun, freeing Keats from his glacial gaze, and ran. Keats dropped to his knees. Cold sweat beaded his forehead and his vision grayed. Hands seized his shoulders. He tried to breathe, but his lungs refused to take the air. He felt himself pulled into a tight embrace.
Someone called his name over and over – Brown, yes, he was with Brown – and he wanted to answer, but when he opened his mouth, no sound emerged. Black spots flecked his vision. Merged. Darkness pressed against him from without and within, a surging black tide sucking the air from his lungs.
Keats shut his eyes.
* * *
She opens her eyes. A fire burns beneath the black water, a slender torch of blazing brilliance. Her heart awakens, pulsing life through her cold veins. She lifts a hand and shields her eyes. For a moment, she believes the ravens have, at long last, fled the Tower, believes he has returned.
Defender of Britain, guardian of the land’s sacred heart, her golden Arthur.
His name bubbles from her lips and ripples though the lake. She lifts her hands from the carved stone arms of her chair, long mossy tendrils of lake grass brushing against her skin. Her hair swirling around her face, she reaches for his sun-kissed blade, then stops. Her hand floats like a pale blossom above the sword.
Caledfwlch is dark and still. Unsheathed. Not yet whole.
The ravens haven’t fled. Arthur hasn’t returned.
Her reawakened heart sinks like a stone. Her gaze returns to the flickering fire and, rising from her chair, she undulates through the water toward the flame and the source of its incandescent heat – a sleeping youth.
And in his hand, Caledfwlch’s missing half, its dragon-entwined scabbard.
* * *
Would you sleep forever beneath the black water, my Bright Star?
The words poured liquid through Keats’s mind and cooled the fever searing his thoughts. He opened his eyes. A woman of ethereal beauty floated in the water above him, her black gown clinging to rounded curves and lush, pale flesh. Black tresses, green-edged, danced around her white face. Her blue lips parted and bubbles floated into the water, then burst with delicate, chiming pops.
“I would, beautiful muse,” Keats whispered through a dry and aching throat. His words bubbled from his mouth. He strained for breath, the water’s cold weight pressing against his chest.
You name me false, poet.
“Who are you, Lady?” Keats asked. The pain in his chest was fading.
Tendrils of midnight hair snaked over the woman’s face, hiding her lake-blue eyes and shadowing her expression. Bubbles slipped from her lips.
I am she who waits.
“For who?” A shushing sound lapped against Keats’s consciousness, a distant murmur of water or words. It pulled at him.
He who will wield Caledfwlch once more. Bubbles floated through the black water. Her submarine gaze looked into Keats, delved the depths of his heart. You must return the scabbard to me so that I might reunite blade and sheath. Otherwise, he will fall again and Britain with him.
“Where shall I find you, Lady?”
Listen to the water.
A desperate voice called, drawing Keats’s attention like a hand grasping his chin.
She rippled like the surface of a wind-stroked lake and her hair, her night-hued gown, and her pale face merged with the black water. But her eyes, luminous and blue, watched him as she floated away.
Listen to the water, poet. Listen true.
A voice crashed like storm-wild surf through Keats’s consciousness, a voice calling his name. The weight lifted from his chest and he sucked in a deep breath of cold, moist air smelling of salt and sod. Coughing, throat burning, Keats opened his eyes. He looked into Brown’s flushed, distraught face.
“I had the most amazing dream, Brown.”
Brown stared at him, mouth open, then yanked Keats against his tartan-clad chest. His heart drummed hard and furious beneath Keats’s ear. Shudders convulsed his body.
He was laughing.
“I can’t breathe,” Keats muttered, voice muffled and nostrils tartan-clogged.
Brown relaxed his embrace, drew in a long, gasping breath, and plunged back into laughter. Keats pushed free of his friend’s arms and sat up. He glanced at what he held in his hand and went still.
You must return the scabbard to me . . . .
His gaze fell on the cut in his coat and his thoughts reeled back a step.
Neither size o’ the man nor his strength matters if ye have a knife, boy . . . .
The scabbard fell from Keats’s grip. He tore at the leather buttons on his coat with numb fingers, then jerked it open. Yanking his shirt up, he fingered the slice in his flesh between the ribs protecting his left lung. Drying blood smeared the edges of the cut, but otherwise no blood oozed from the wound.
A knife hilt-deep wound. He remembered similar injuries from his days as a dresser at Guy’s Hospital: Please observe that the knife has punctured the lung causing it to both fill with blood and collapse. The poor sod drowned in his own blood, gentlemen.
Keats’s pulse thundered in his ears. He staggered to his feet and stumbled across the abbey’s grounds, heading for the beach and the sea’s cleansing touch. He didn’t know how much time had passed before he became aware that Brown walked silently beside him.
When he reached the beach, Keats slogged through the cool sand to the sea. He waded into the surf, the cold water stealing his breath, and lifted his shirt again. He cupped handfuls of water against the wound, flushing it out. The wound stung and burned, but never emitted even a drop of blood.
The scabbard was thrust through his belt and his mouth dried. When had he picked it up again? He looked up and saw Brown standing on the beach watching him, his face drained of all humor.
Behind Keats, the surf thundered against the rocks, hissed over the sand, and he thought he heard a low chiming voice flowing and receding.
A liquid voice he understood.
Smoothing his shirt against the wound, Keats’s fingers bumped over the scabbard. He pulled it from his belt, bent, and washed it in the sea’s deep blue water. He lifted it into the air and it gleamed as though firelit, shaped from a metal he’d never seen before, light, but strong. Celtic dragons decorated the scabbard, tails entwined, wings flared and heads bowed to form a heart.
“Perhaps I shall be jealous, after all,” Brown murmured. He’d joined Keats in the surf and was studying the scabbard, his spectacles perched precariously on the end of his nose.
“It is the scabbard to King Arthur’s sword,” Keats said, excitement creeping into his voice. “The Lady of the Lake told me.”
Brown nodded and smoothed a hand over his balding head. “Ah. Did she happen to tell you so in your most amazing dream?”
“Yes. And I need to return it to her.”
“I thought you were dying,” Brown said. “I thought I’d have to bury you and return to London alone.” He blinked and looked away. “What would I have told Tom?”
“I’m sorry for that,” Keats said softly. “I thought I was dead, as well.”
“Yet here you are.” Brown’s voice was thick, hoarse.
“Here I am.”
Keats tucked the wet scabbard through his belt again and buttoned up his coat. He shivered. “After all that, I would truly hate to catch cold and die.”
“Not nearly as heroic,” Brown agreed. “Perhaps we should get out of the water.”
“My thought as well.” Flashing his friend a smile, Keats waded to the beach. Behind him, the sea whispered and sang.
I am listening, he promised.
* * *
“So, if you give the scabbard back, you will die,” Brown said. His walking stick tapped the ground with each stride on the hard-packed road. “Seems one would wish to keep it in that event, not toss it into some scummy lake in the ass-end of Scotland.”
“Then Britain would fall,” Keats said, scanning the woods bordering the road. “Seems one should be willing to sacrifice his life for a greater good.”
“One might think. But then one might be a fool utterly lacking in common sense.”
“If everyone relied on common sense, there would be no heroes in the world.”
“Touché.” Keats stopped and wiped sweat from his brow. The July sun heated the humid air, air thick with the sweet scent of wild roses and snapdragons. After they’d taken the ferry from Iona back to Mull, they’d traveled across Scotland, heading south at a rapid pace as Keats followed Water’s gurgling voice.
But for the last day, he’d heard nothing. Not since the conversation they’d had with a young woman named Vivian, who’d carried a piglet tucked under one plump arm. Black-haired and gray-eyed, she’d been attractive enough for Brown to flirt with outrageously.
Then her warm gaze had lit on the scabbard tucked into Keats’s belt and her eyes had widened.
The Dragon’s Heart.
You know it?
I know that as long as ye have it, ye’ll never die.
But . . . Arthur died.
He’d lost the scabbard. His sister thieved it away and it was never seen again.
Brown’s smile becomes strained: Fascinating. Utterly.
What happens if one is wounded, then gives the scabbard up?
Lovely conversation, truly. Shall we resume our walk, Keats?
“Shall we rest a moment? Sit beneath that oak and have a bit of whisky?”
Sitting in clover-dotted grass, Keats leaned against the twisted oak’s trunk and sipped from Brown’s flask. The Scotch whisky burned smooth down his throat and kindled a fire in his belly. He absently touched his shirt, the wound still tender beneath the cotton.
Listen to the water, poet. Listen true.
“Does it still cause you pain?” Brown asked, his voice solemn.
“A little. Nothing to fret about.” Keats took another sip, then handed the flask back. “I am feeling a bit sleepy, though.”
“A nap in the shade would do us both good.”
Keats stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankles. The heat, the fragrant wild roses, and the whisky combined to smooth down his eyelids. Orange light danced behind his closed eyes. A pleasant opium drowsiness swept over him and he fell into Sleep’s feather-soft bed.
Keats opened his eyes. Sunlight and shadow dappled the grass. He glanced at Brown. His friend slept, chin to chest, white hat pulled low over his eyes. A gentle snore buzzed up from his lips like a lazy bumblebee.
Rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand, Keats wondered what had awakened him. A breeze rustled the green leaves and cooled the sweat on his face. And deeper in the woods, water whispered.
Keats sat up, heart hammering against his ribs. He rose to his feet and listened. A liquid murmur, magical and musical, trickled into his mind.
I am waiting, Bright Star.
Keats wrapped his fingers around the Dragon’s Heart. Despite the day’s heat, the metal remained cool to the touch. He looked at Brown for a long moment, studying his friend’s face. He tucked the memory of Brown’s laughter and warm friendship into the folds of his heart, a talisman against the dark. Drawing in a deep breath of summer-ripe air, Keats walked into the woods.
A red-berried and thorned holly hedge parted before Keats, allowing him to slip through without pricking his skin or snagging his clothing. A mockingbird twittered in the tree branches, then sang a mournful song.
Keats stopped. Sweat rolled down his temples and plastered his shirt to his chest. The lake stretched out before him.
My Bright Star.
“My Lady.” Keats walked to the lake’s edge. “If I give you the scabbard, what becomes of me?”
What will become of Britain if you do not?
Keats searched the black motionless water for any sign of its Lady.
But for the scabbard, you would be dead.
Keats sucked in a sharp breath. The truth was harder when voiced aloud. “The wound has healed, though it pains me.”
Once you return the Dragon’s Heart, you will begin to die, my poet.
“How long will I have?”
I cannot say. The fiercer your flame, Bright Star, the sooner it shall be snuffed.
“All is cold beauty; pain is never done,” Keats whispered.
What is your name, poet?
“Poet is name enough, Lady.”
I would keep you, Bright Star, but you belong to another.
She waits beneath a Roman moon with an ever-hungry heart.
The scent of bergamot oranges curled into Keats’s nostrils. He shivered convulsively, a cold finger icing his spine. He prepared to pull the scabbard free of his belt, but his hand remained still, his fingers locked around the cool metal. His pulse pounded through his veins.
What is a poet’s worth?
Keats’s thoughts flew back to London and to his brother.
Your poems make me feel better, just like a dose of tonic – but without the bitter taste! It’s as though your verses possess magic and fire. They set my heart alight, John. Do you have a new poem? Please tell it to me.
Tom’s cough was worse, his face pale, his vitality gone as though it’d seeped into the soil beneath his feet – British soil – or into the air he struggled to breathe. But his eyes, his eyes still gleamed with the hope tomorrow would always come.
What is my brother’s worth?
If he could save Tom by giving him the scabbard, he wouldn’t hesitate.
What is Britain’s worth?
I would do some good in the world.
Keats closed his eyes. Images and possibilities cycled through his mind like a rotating diorama: Tom’s face flushed with health and laughter or Tom dead and still and heavy in Keats’s arms, a weight that would forever haunt him. Celebrating with chilled claret and champagne as each new volume of poetry is eagerly snatched up, necessitating second, third, and forth printings, his name remembered or his work gathering dust in the store window; without money or a place to live, his friends taking him in while he reconsiders his possibilities – poetry or medicine.
Poor in coin, his friendships are true.
His future stretched before him, a long and unwalked path, pristine and untouched, one he yearned to stride. Did destiny hinge on something as small and insignificant as tripping over something hidden beneath the grass?
Or had fate been deflected, a knife-pierced lung, life granted instead of a grave?
I thought I’d have to bury you and return to London alone.
I would do some good in the world.
Throat tight and aching, Keats yanked the scabbard from his belt. Before he could change his mind, he leaned back and threw the Dragon’s Heart with all of his strength. It wheeled through the air beneath the canopy of trees and over the lake.
A pale arm shot out of the black water and caught the scabbard. The Lady’s white hand held it up as if in triumph and light starred out from the heart formed by the bowed heads of the dragons on the scabbard, luminescent, a pure and pagan fire.
Keats shielded his eyes, his vision dazzled. Then the Dragon’s Heart and the hand holding it vanished beneath the black water. The lake was once again motionless, still as windless night.
Keats pressed a hand over the half-healed wound in his chest. He coughed and pain rippled through his chest, scratched at his throat. Rain began to fall. He tipped his face up to it and found himself automatically listening.
But heard nothing more than the rain.
“Keats? Where are you?”
“Here,” he called. His gaze returned to the quiet lake. The wound beneath his fingers throbbed. “I am here,” he whispered. He closed his eyes.
“It’s raining,” Brown added indignantly.
“So it is,” Keats replied, a smile tugging at his lips. He opened his eyes. “Thank you for pointing that out. I might’ve missed it otherwise.”
“Of course, my dear Junkets, that’s what I’m here for.”
Iridescent light flared beneath the lake’s surface, a star’s white radiance.
What is a poet’s worth?
Nothing, without the love of friends.
Keats drew in a careful breath, stifling the cough prickling in his throat. “Ah, my mistake.” He turned away from the lake and the fierce fire blazing at its heart, and within his own. “I was under the impression you were here for whiskey, women, and rhymes.”
“You, sir, are grossly incorrect in your assumptions. It is women, then whiskey, then rhymes.”
“I’m afraid I must disagree, Brown,” Keats said, pushing his way back through the holly hedge to rejoin his friend.
And behind him, words as musical and clear as a mountain stream trickling over rocks: Farewell, my Bright Star.
Author’s note: On December 1st, 1818, Tom Keats died at age nineteen of consumption, in his brother’s arms. Twenty-six months later, on February 23rd, 1821, John Keats followed his younger brother, dying of consumption in Rome at age twenty-five, yearning for home and life.
Keats’s fierce flame had burned so brightly, that when his autopsy was conducted, it was noted that : “…the lungs were completely gone – the doctors could not conceive how he had lived in the last 2 months.”
He was buried in Rome in the Protestant Cemetery and his request to mark his grave only with a single line, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” was sadly overruled by his distraught friend and companion, Joseph Severn. Charles Brown never forgave himself for not joining Keats in what would be the young poet’s final journey.
Keats’s poetry lives on, his name ever-remembered.
Copyright 2013 Adrian Phoenix (writing as Elisabeth Junot)