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The Ravenglass Fragment I: The Dream of the Rood

Ahead the road veered slightly southward, and through the fog Cynewulf spied the dark shape of an ancient tree rising from behind a low wall like the gnarled fist of a titan. The image bothered Cynewulf, and he very determinedly looked away as the tree grew closer. It didn’t help much, for he fancied that the donkey’s pace slowed still further, maddeningly bearing him along at snail’s pace. When the beast grunted and raised its head, ears erect, Cynewulf’s gaze was drawn once more to the dark mass — closer now and looming ominously.
And as Cynewulf gazed at the tree, it moved.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. The donkey uttered a piercing bray and turned from a plodding beast into a terrified animal, bucking and kicking. Taken by surprise by the sudden transformation, Cynewulf struggled to keep his seat for an instant, then felt himself falling. The foggy world spun round and round, then his head crashed into the hard surface of the road, striking sparks across his vision like flint on steel.
The wind was knocked from his lungs as if by a huge club. As he struggled to draw breath Cynewulf caught a glimpse, tilted and dim, of the donkey trotting away and vanishing into the fog, along with the steady sound of its hooves.
With a groan, Cynewulf managed to rise to his knees. Then a new sound thudded in his ears and he looked toward where the tree had loomed, twisted and ugly.
Cynewulf’s heart lurched and he felt his eyes go wide with fear.
It was still moving. And it was not a tree.
It was like nothing he had seen before, not even in the grip of nightmare. It was a hellish chimera, with the features of a half-dozen or more beasts, like a monster imperfectly sculpted from dark, wet clay. Its swollen head seemed to large for its body and resembled a diseased cat. One great swollen eye was pale and greenish, grotesquely oversized, while the other was smaller and blue. Its torso was like a man’s, but huge, covered in bulging muscles that pulsed and flexed almost at random. One arm was manlike, but slender and skeletal, while the other was grossly oversize, scaled like a snake and ending in three blunt, bulbous fingers.
It moved strangely, almost sinuously, sliding over the stone wall toward Cynewulf with a slithering motion and when he saw its lower body he understood why. Screaming involuntarily, black fear filling his heart, Cynewulf saw that its lower body was long and snake-like, but it consisted of a dozen different legs, all fused together in a single mass, once more like a sloppily made clay sculpture. There were hooves, human legs and feet, feathered appendages and the paws of wolves, all entangled and twisted into a great serpentine body. It propelled itself forward partially by dragging itself along on its grotesque scaled arm, and partly by writhing like a snake.
Cynewulf’s screams rose higher still, incoherent as a terrified beast, but they seemed oddly muted by the encroaching fog, as if the entire atmosphere had conspired to muffle his cries, leaving him stranded in a strange, featureless world where he and the misshapen part-human horror were the only inhabitants.
For an instant the scene seemed frozen in Cynewulf’s mind, like the page of an illuminated manuscript — the creature as it slithered across the wall, its malformed head and fanged, almost feline mouth, now open, glistening black tongue protruding as it panted and groaned.
Fear froze for an instant, and Cynewulf felt a sudden clarity of purpose and realization of what he must do. His hands moved almost without volition, reaching under the neck of his tunic, drawing forth his wooden crucifix as his lips formed the words that he had so often uttered in prayer, at the thought of the evils of the world and the challenges that he would face in the Lord’s service…
Scapulis suis obumbrabit te et sub pinnis eius sperabis. Scuto circumdabit te veritas eius non timebis a timore nocturno.
The creature paused at the sound and with a rush of defiance Cynewulf thrust his carved crucifix toward it. He had made it himself — it was a simple cross, but when he touched it Cynewulf felt the strength of a thousand men and the stirring of unshakable faith.
It was close now, towering over Cynewulf’s head like the tree he had mistaken it for. It rose up on its fused snake-like body and stared, inclining its diseased cat-head in a confused, almost curious fashion.
A sagitta volante in die a negotio perambulans in tenebris ab incursu et daemonio meridiano.
The words continued to flow instinctively from Cynewulf’s lips and he thrust the crucifix toward the thing.
“Begone, demon,” he whispered. “The power of Christ compels you.”

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