Jowan waited for Karl to enter the church’s side room from the nave before placing the mug of tea on the table.
Karl leaned forward and swept up the mug just as Jowan clattered the generously loaded plate of Speculoos next to the mugs.
‘Don’t go eating them all at once!’ Jowan laughed, noticing Karl’s eyes widen.
‘Don’t tempt me,’ Karl said, ‘moving that tree was hungry work.’
‘I thought Cato was coming to help you? Plus, you did tell me you could do it on your own.’
‘I did, you’re right. I wish I’d left it and asked you to open the side door to let me come through that way.’ Karl gestured into the vestry. ‘I presume that’s where that door leads?’
Jowan frowned. ‘Side door? There’s no way out through the vestry.’
‘Where does that door lead, then?’
Jowan’s frown deepened. ‘Which door? The church has two entry points: the west end and the south side. No others.’
‘Yes, a small one. I think with a bit of pushing and shoving I could have got through.’
‘Oh, that,’ Jowan’s face dropped.
‘Did I say something wrong?’
‘It’s not a side entrance; I’d quite forgotten about it and now you’ve reminded me, I want to forget it again.’
Jowan took a large sip of tea and grabbed a Speculoos.
‘Then what is it?’
‘A crypt,’ Jowan said flatly.
‘Wow, like a real medieval crypt?’ Have you ever been down there?’
‘My guess from how white your face just turned is your answer is “yes”. I’d also guess it’s an experience you’d rather not repeat. Am I right?’
Jowan leaned forward and placed the teacup gently and ominously on the table. It rattled as if in warning. ‘Yes.’
‘Are you going to tell me? I’m in no rush to leave and the tree can wait for decorations.’
Jowan rubbed his chin shook his head. ‘On my own head, be it.’
‘If it isn’t my old friend Brother Jowan!’ The old man embraced Jowan enthusiastically.
‘Father Perren, it is good to see you again! I had to see it to believe it was my old friend!’
‘How long has it been?’
‘I believe six, maybe eight seasons have passed.’
The man shook his head. ‘The years fly by, don’t they? What news of St. Michael’s? I know it’s not far but-’ Father Perren gestured to the village in the valley before him. ‘I have my work cut out in Salmonweir.’
‘The monastery is a den of calm and silence.’
Father Perren threw his head to the sky and laughed, ‘why do I not believe you? And the Abbott, he is well?’
‘We are helping where we can but this Black Death,’ Jowan shook his head. ‘The Abbott is well and sends his regards.’
The priest grinned. ‘Remind him he still owes me a cut of venison on your return!’
‘That I shall!’ Jowan sighed. ‘I was told the plague has now reached this far west. I’m ready to help.’
Father Perren put his hand to Jowan’s chest. ‘Eager, Brother Jowan? Take some rest; you’ve had a long trip.’
‘Hmm, yes,’ Jowan said. ’It was a long morning. 14 miles do not pass quickly. Nevertheless, I am keen to begin.’
‘I’m sure you are. Our sick are few in number, and you will need your rest and strength if things take a turn for the worst.’
‘How many sick?’
‘Precisely five. Three children and two adults – the children are cousins. They have all received bloodletting and restricted to their homes to do penance as we speak.’
‘Good, good. I see it is all in hand for now. Is there anything you need me to do now?’
Perren clapped Jowan on the back. ‘There is one job I was hoping to do this season but now that plague is in the village, I fear I may never do it.’
Jowan nodded. ‘Anything I can help with, Father Perren.’
‘There is a small crypt beneath this church. I’ve yet to visit and I’ve only recently acquired the key. Are your knees up to it?’ Father Perren gave Jowan a playful look.
‘My knees are as good as they ever were. I will get started right away!’
‘No, you won’t! How long has it been since you’ve eaten?’
Jowan held his stomach. ‘Too long.’
Jowan slid the heavy iron key into the lock and gave it a turn. It groaned, resisted, and after a few forceful turns, unlocked with a clunk.
Jowan gripped the handle tightly and gave a tug. The door came free, swinging open to reveal a flight of steps disappearing towards and then into a thick black blanket. Dust danced, enticing him forward.
He unhooked the burning lamp from the wall and stretched it before him into the dark. The orange glow did nothing more than light a few more steps.
Watching where he placed his feet, Jowan took the first careful step onto the stone. Using the wall for balance he took a second step towards the darkness.
A cold wind came from the dark depths, rounding the corner and cascading up the steps towards him.
It was gone in an instant.
He turned around, looking back towards the light. ‘Father Perren?’ The priest did not appear. ‘Is this another of your jokes?’
When the priest did not answer, Jowan continued. The first flight ended at a wall; from there, the steps took a right turn. Jowan stopped there to peer into the darkness. Tiny orange sparks gravitated away from the torch as he thrust it into the void.
A shape loomed at him – tall and broad, a statue or an upright tomb. Heavy musk hung on the air, a cold and wet sealed for decades now released.
With a sigh, Jowan took a step onto the second and final short flight of steps. These were steeper than the longer flight; Jowan took care to lower himself carefully into the chamber.
The darkness enveloped the room; his eyes adjusted enough that he could make out other shapes. Aged wooden boxes stacked neatly against the walls, most misshapen, likely broken and rotted with age and with damp.
Jowan headed for a wall protrusion and slipped the torch into the hook. The light barely penetrated the darkness. Needing more light, Jowan returned to the surface to collect another torch and his writing materials.
Expecting to see only the one torch on his return, Jowan was surprised to see four torches – one on each side of the crypt. The second was directly opposite where he placed his torch. The other two were placed either side of two pillars above which was a long stone creating a simple doorway.
Inside the stone structure was a small featureless door.
The right side had strange carvings at eye level running down no longer than 12 inches, lines spaced closely together followed by a gap, then more lines tightly packed together.
Jowan reproduced them on the parchment then turned his attention to the boxes.
Most were broken and contained what looked like soil. Even in the lamp light he could tell it was rich, dark soil. It had a peculiar smell as though fresh which couldn’t have been true as Father Perren had been Salmonweir priest for five years and claimed never to have been down there.
Jowan rooted around inside several boxes, determining in fact, there was nothing in them but good quality soil.
The other side of the chamber proved the same.
The voice came from the doorway with the strange scratches. Like before, a chill wind passed over him, out of the chamber, and was gone.
Jowan turned to the door with the strange markings. It closed gently just as he turned.
Jowan’s heart skipped a beat.
‘Whoever that is,’ he said weakly, ‘this is not entertaining.’
Jowan approached the door.
‘Sir, or madam, you should not be down here. This is sacred ground!’
Jowan pushed the door; it did not move.
This time the wind came from behind him.
Jowan turned and caught sight of a figure. He was about to cry out when Father Perren spoke. ‘Jowan? Is everything all right?’
Jowan relaxed. ‘Father Perren. I was just-’ he gave the door a quizzical look, ‘this door. It opened a few moments ago and closed quickly. I cannot seem to get it open again.’
Perren approached the stone upright slab. Something caught his eye and he reached out to touch the lines. ‘Ah, I believe this is Ogham.’
Jowan frowned. ‘What is that?’
‘Ogham. An ancient language of the Irish.’
‘What is it doing in Cornwall?’
‘Scholars say there are examples in Cornwall and western England. Wales too. I confess this is the first I’ve seen, but I recognised it instantly.’
Jowan took a nervous step back. ‘Then this is a pagan tomb?’
‘Possible, but it’s also just as likely a Christian soul is at rest behind there.’ He gestured at the boxes. ‘What else is here?’
‘Just dirt in boxes.’
‘Dirt.’ Jowan repeated. ‘And it seems rich soil for growing. We could perhaps use it in the church grounds to grow healing herbs?’
Perren scratched his chin. ‘Yes. Bring it up. I will find some young men to help you.’
‘No need. There are ten, or maybe twelve?’ By the time you find a lad you could guilt or bribe to do it, I will have it finished. Besides, they are in such poor state. I wouldn’t want a clumsy lad dropping the soil everywhere.’
Perren laughed. ‘If you insist. Please fetch me if you need help.’ He disappeared up the stairs leaving Jowan alone.
Jowan carried the crates up the stairs and stacked them neatly against the church wall. Despite the wood rotting and warped, each was held together with a metal frame which helped keep them in place. While buckled, they did not give way.
Jowan re-entered the crypt and descended the steps ready to collect the final crate.
At the bottom, he stopped.
The door to the inner crypt was wide open.
He took a tentative step forward. No light came from the chamber –nothing but blackness beyond. Torch smoke danced I the room; the more he looked, the less natural the smoke seemed, twining in the centre of the crypt to hurtle towards and through the now open door.
Jowan crossed the crypt but stopped short of entering the second chamber.
The smoke gravitated towards him, circling his head, blurring his vision.
Something moved in the inner chamber, a figure perhaps.
‘Sir! Or my lady, come out of there this instance!’ Jowan grabbed a torch from the wall and marched bravely through the open doorway and into the second chamber.
But it was empty.
The door slammed shut behind him. Jowan turned startled and raced to the door, but it had already closed.
Jowan tried to get a hand grip on the door to pull it, but his fingers would not slide into the gap. Remembering that he couldn’t push it open from the other side, he tried pushing it from this side.
But the door would not open.
The voice was directly behind him this time.
He thought it was the voice of a child, but when he turned the figure seemed that of a young woman.
She had her back to him. The room was so dark, Jowan pointed the torch towards her.
He gasped. The girl’s pale grey arms were covered in long-healed scars, welts, and gnarled veins; long bony fingers didn’t so much press to her face as clasp, buried in a mat of hair as wild as seaweed tossed to shore by a storm and dumped where they rested.
‘Please,’ came her disembodied voice. ‘Please.’
‘Young lady?’ Jowan moved closer.
She sobbed. ‘You can’t take them.’
‘You can’t take them!’ Her head snapped quickly to face Jowan.
Her face too was covered in welts and scars, skin pale, grey almost blue. Her eyes milky white bore through Jowan’s skull. Mouth widened into a sneer; her brown tongue flicked against ashen grey teeth.
‘You can’t take them, Jowan!’ She took a menacing step forward.
‘What!’ Jowan cried. ‘Take what?’ He backed hastily towards the door, the spectre of the woman advancing, repeating her statement.
Jowan tripped and fell backwards; his head knock on the door. His feet slid forward to land on his backside, propped against the closed door.
She loomed over him – such a small built woman yet from his prone position, she was like a giantess ready to crush an insignificant prey.
She knelt silently, gracefully, bringing her cold, grey eyes to meet his. ‘You can’t take them,’ her voice gurgled, it was barely a whisper.
‘Take what? Please tell me!’
Her face was now less than an inch away. He could feel the stench of dusty, dry meat from her mouth as she sucked air in and out of ancient, rancid lungs.
‘My children,’ she gurgled and pulled back. ‘Bring me my children!’
She brought her hand to her face then slowly reached out and touched his face.
Jowan recoiled in horror, not wanting the inevitable touch of cold dead flesh. He wanted to be far away from here – out of the chamber, out of the crypt and above ground.
In the church.
He shrank against her bony finger, trying to slide away beneath her tattered rag covered body, to find a way out.
Her finger moved above his head, touched the door and it opened.
Realising his chance, Jowan scrambled backwards and when far enough away, turned over and stumbled to his feet. He charged across the crypt’s main room and hurtled up the steps only to collide with Father Perren.
‘Woah, easy Jowan! I was about to offer you some small beer.’
Jowan grabbed his robe. ‘Perren! We’ve got to put it back, all of it!’
Perren scratched his head. ‘How peculiar! I was about to inform you of the same thing.’
‘Why?’ Jowan grabbed the priest’s robe. ‘Tell me!’
Perren looked down at Jowan’s hand. ‘You forget yourself, Brother Jowan. Calm yourself and have some small beer. Then we will put it back together.’
‘No, we can’t wait.’ Jowan grabbed the first crate. ‘Please help me, I will explain.’
‘What is the rush? It’s only human bone!’
A shiver passed down Jowan’s spine. ‘Human bone?’
‘Yes!’ said Perren unconcerned. ‘We only noticed when we emptied the first crate. Best put them back, allow these children their rest.’
‘Children?!’ Jowan snapped.
‘Jowan! What has got into you? These are human remains. I don’t know why we didn’t see it straight away but now we do, there is no harm done. We can put them back where we found them, and we will pray and chant for their souls when we’ve finished.’
‘No, they go back now. There is no time to waste!’
‘All right, Jowan, as you wish.’
It took them a full hour to carefully move the boxes back below ground. In that time, it grew dark and began raining again, making the steps slippery as water cascaded down the steps to collect in the crypt.
Jowan was relieved to see the inner crypt door closed and the ghastly woman no longer present.
Jowan took the last crate, excusing the priest and requesting he prepare the small beer he’d promised.
Jowan waited in the crypt, watching the door to the inner chamber, but it remained closed for the entirety of the move. He waited with breath held, listening for something – anything. But he could hear only the gentle sound of rain tapping on the stone outside.
‘I trust you are now satisfied?’ he said shakily. ‘Your children are returned?’
The door did not open. No wind and no sound came.
‘I take your silence as agreement. Now go, leave us in peace. Be at rest.’
He hastened up the steps as quickly as he could and slammed the crypt door.
Jowan slipped the chamber pot back under his bed and swung his legs around to lie back on the straw. The uneven shutters of the window opposite the bed allowed a thread of silver through to hit the wall behind him. He peered up to see the moonlight illuminate the crucifix and it gave him comfort.
Knuckles rapped at the door.
With a sigh, Jowan climbed out of bed, grateful for the heat still emanating through the floor from below.
Jowan lifted the latch, expecting to see Father Perren. His smile froze to his face and then dropped when he saw the small landing was empty. He stepped out and peered over the stairs, but Father Perren was not there.
‘Perren?’ he said. ‘Are you there?’
When the priest did not answer, Jowan returned to his room and closed the door gently.
That wind again – it came through the gap between the shutters, passed over him and was gone.
With a whimper, Jowan leapt onto the bed and knelt before the crucifix still lit by the silver moonlight. Jowan began praying.
He squeezed his eyes shut, muttering in Latin, repeating the words over and over until his voice grew hoarse.
He stopped chanting but remained there, on the bed, hands clasped in prayer. The only sound he could hear was his own breath, subsiding to calm.
Finally relaxing, Jowan turned and lay on the bed. He crossed his arms over his chest and took a deep breath, willing his heart and breathing to calm.
Something passed before his face – something dark. Had the moonlight finally moved too far that the room could no longer enjoy its light? Jowan opened his eyes to take a last look at the moonlight before returning to his slumber.
And there she was.
She stood before the shutter blocking the light.
‘What do you want?’ Jowan whimpered. ‘I did what you asked!’
She took a step forward.
Until she was by the side of the bed.
She opened her mouth; a long, deep, gurgling scream penetrated the air.
Jowan placed his hands over his ears. ‘Please stop!’
She moved closer.
The woman pushed her tortured grey face towards Jowan’s.
‘I want my children! I want my children! I want my children! I want my children!’ she screamed.
‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Jowan asked.
Karl only laughed.
When Jowan realised what he said, he laughed right along with Karl. ‘You know what I mean, Karl.’
‘That’s a strange story you have there, Jowan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of MR James, but the only ghosts I know are not scary.’ Karl grinned.
‘Let me lend you some of his works, but after the story you just told me, read with caution or the light on.’
Jowan nodded thoughtfully and grinned. ‘I don’t know if ghost stories would scare me now that I am one. Perhaps I shall borrow them when I have finished Mister Dickens work.’
‘You’d be welcome! Need any more help? Only, I promised Cass I would video chat with her this afternoon.’
‘No, that’s quite all right. I will summon the choir to help me decorate. Go, enjoy quality time with your daughter.’
Jowan finished the last of his tea and entered the silent church nave.
Karl had placed the tree neatly on the ground along the north side. Jowan contemplated it, gauged its length, and let his gaze wander through the church for an ideal spot. The west end next to the main door did not seem wide enough.
‘I think,’ Jowan said out loud, ‘maybe next to the south entrance?’ He strolled to the door but spotted the small leaflet table.
He turned it around and shifted it to the right.
‘Yes, I think that will do. Right there!’ He bent down, noticing the electrical socket. ‘And the lights we can plug in here, hmm, yes.’
He froze as the wind passed through the church.
Jowan slowly stood up and turned to his left, wanting but not wanting to see her.
There she was at the high end. She stood before the altar; hands placed before her – the face – the ghastly grey face sneering at the monk.
‘Where are my children, Jowan? ‘I want my children! I want my children! I want my children! I want my children!’
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