The Pilgrim Woman sat by the fire with a single white feather in her hand. Her listeners came and sat inside the Lost Chapel. The last of the sunset striped their faces through the lancet windows. She smoothed the long vanes till the waterproof barbs locked together, and no more callers swished through the dunes. Then she twirled the feather in her fingers and began . . .
‘This is a swan’s feather from the Arctic Circle. It reminds me of an old tale – perhaps one written by such a quill.
When the world was only newly licked into shape, the Lands of the Britons were beloved of the White Goddess, Empress of the Seven Rivers. Each great river of these lands ran under the care of one of her precious daughters: Sabrina, Isis, Trisantona and their sisters. To keep watch on the purity and flow of the waters, each daughter of the goddess took the form of a swan.
The peoples on the banks of the Great Rivers honoured them. They left little offerings of flowers on the shores of fords, dropped coins from bridges, made prayers from their split log boats. After battles, they bent their swords and flung them in the mud, repenting for the flow sullied with blood. It took only the occasional drowning to remind them of the rivers’ might.
Centuries passed. The offerings grew fewer. The White Goddess slept, unneeded. The dirt in the waters grew foul. Chaff turned to metal swarf. Slops turned to aniline dyes. Chaff and straw gave way to plastic and oil. The River Goddesses warned the ignorant with floods. Yet still they imprisoned the tributaries in pipes, skinned over the sacred water-meadows with concrete and narrow-gutted houses, and tipped effluents in their lifeblood.
The Seven Sisters wept for the ruined mussels, the poisoned eels, the dead otters. One by one they sickened too. They could no longer appear to anyone as women. They were trapped in their befouled swan bodies.
At last, the ancient sleeping Empress awoke, enraged by the mistreatment of her daughters. With the last traces of might she had from her few believers, she harnessed her swan-daughters to her cloud chariot. Then she set off to the Home of the Many Gods. She would demand vengeance.
But as they flew beyond the Arctic Circle, it grew too cold for the stricken swans. The Swan Goddesses faltered and plunged into the icy seas. Ice grew above their white wings, glittering and coldly beautiful.
There they struggle still. You can see their wing-beats in the flickering of the Northern Lights. Pray there is no thaw. Pray they do not cross the Rainbow Bridge. For if all Seven Swan Goddesses cross it, then will fall the Fimbulwinter – and Ragnarök.’