The night mist had started to disperse by the time Ralph Caines arrived at the abbey. The Laguna had packed in a mile or so back, a sudden split in the head gasket rendering the engine useless, so he had walked the rest of the way, shivering in the chill February breeze and praying that the forecasted rain would not arrive – or at least, hold off until he had reached the shelter of the disused abbey.
Why the hell had Alan wanted to meet him there, of all places? And what could be so important that they had to meet at this hour, seven o’clock in the bloody morning? Ralph shook his head wearily as he made his way up the steep incline that led to the building’s south porch.
Grey, weathered tombstones surrounded him on either side of the dusty porch, some tilted at precarious angles, others so cracked and battered by the elements it was a miracle they were still standing. Very few of the grave markers were of recent origin, as the abbey church was no longer used for parish burials. Indeed, after the mutilated bodies were discovered and the building deconsecrated last year it was used for very little these days.
Ralph reached the top of the slope and shivered as a cold gust of wind tore through his reefer coat, a birthday gift from his wife. He had turned forty a couple of months ago, and he was beginning to feel his age. Gone were the days when he would get up at six each morning for a five mile run. His work left him little energy and motivation for physical exertion these days, and taking up smoking again after five years of abstinence wasn’t helping. The bottom had dropped out of the second car market, he was working longer hours and clocking up extra miles to journey to car auctions over the country, trying to find half way decent motors to do up and sell on from his site in Didcot. For the first few years it had gone well. Alan Peterson had been a decent business partner to begin with, head screwed on when it came to money and clinching a deal. But recently his judgement had been slipping. Sales were dropping off, some of the motors he’d virtually given away and the last two mechanics he’d taken on were about as useful as a chocolate teapot. That mechanic who’d given the Laguna the all clear yesterday was one of Alan’s recruits.
Alan Peterson had not been himself for a long time. Neither had he been at work for the last three days. Disappeared on some bloody errand, leaving Ralph to struggle on his own, which his missus wasn’t too happy about. She was even less happy with his announcement that he was going to meet Alan at the abbey.
A loud piercing cry came from the medieval preaching cross that stood near the 17th century tower, shattering the pre-dawn silence. He turned to face it, saw a large, ugly black bird perched on the head. Its beady black eyes returned his stare. Man and beast regarded each other warily for a few minutes until Ralph turned his gaze to the building. The raven squawked triumphantly, as if gloating over its ability to outstare the human.
Ralph concentrated on the medieval building in front of him. It was not the most inviting of places, but the mist and lack of bright sunlight could have had something to do with that. As well as the discovery of the bodies last year. Ralph shuddered. The abbey church of St Peter and St Paul had been used as a place of worship and a centre for community interests, concerts and local art exhibitions. Not any more.
A historian – as Alan fancied himself to be - might have paid close attention to the odd shape caused by the addition of two chapels on the south side, altering the abbey’s original cruciform plan and obscuring from view the nave and chancel, a clear indication that this building had been forced to adapt over the centuries to accommodate a growing congregation, regardless of the cost to the original symmetry the early medieval planners had created. Alan had pointed this out to him one day, boring Ralph senseless with his pictures and books while he was struggling with the invoices.
Staring at the abbey now, Ralph had a vague sensation that this building was unlike most other ecclesiastical structures. The square tower with its 19th century pyramid roof, round-headed Norman windows and corner turrets of chequer-patterned flint and stone, looked fairly short and unimpressive from a distance; but close up, even in the pre-dawn gloom, he had the sensation that the tower was soaring into the sky, jutting out to the heavens as if built to challenge God rather than celebrate his glory.
Ralph shook his head at the thought, looked back to the preaching cross and saw that that bloody bird was still staring at him.
And then another raven, just as big and ugly as the first, came down from the sky to join it on the preaching cross. They both stared at him, unblinking, as if appraising him, sizing him up for something.
Shit, this was really weird. As he passed the birds both of them inclined their heads, closed their eyes once – both in perfect unison – and then spread their great black wings, cried once, and flew off.
And as he made his way into the south porch he realised it was getting weirder. Above the exterior doorway was an elegantly carved stone tympanum depicting the Tree of Life. The fruit of the Tree was being devoured by a pair of lion-like creatures with highly stylized forked tails. On the lintel a formidable dragon was attacking the Archangel Michael – a reference to the war in Heaven in which Satan had been defeated and expelled by the Archangel. Ralph had been shown a picture of an almost identical tympanum in the Buckinghamshire church of Dinton. In that one the placid looking winged figure was seen to be thrusting a large cross into the dragon’s gaping maw. Here, though, the Archangel was being torn to shreds.
Evil triumphant in Heaven – hardly a suitable image for a church. But perhaps appropriate for a building that had been abandoned by God…
He pushed the interior doors. As promised, they were unlocked, but they gave way reluctantly, hinges squealing in angry protest. With one step he was in the section of the abbey known as the People’s Chapel, added to the original building in the 1340s. Taking out his Maglite, he saw on his right a blocked up window in what had been the original west wall of the south transept. It hovered sadly over a raised altar which itself looked unused and neglected. Directly in front of him was a large lead font, the carved figures of eleven apostles barely discernable even in the bright light cast from his torch.
He walked past the font, wrinkled his nose at the musty odour of damp stonework and long lain, newly disturbed dust and stepped into the nave of the main building; a gloomy affair that was forbidding and rather unsettling due to the pre-dawn shadows that were awaiting dispersion by full sunlight.
If it ever came. That was a stupid bloody thought, he told himself; but in the abandoned abbey that had been host to murder it was too easy to believe that darkness would never leave.
A quick flick of the torch beam over the pews informed Ralph that Alan wasn’t here. Had to be in the chancel, then. He started to make his way through the pews that crowded around him, shivering at the lack of warmth in the building. If anything, it was colder inside the building than out. The chancel had been modelled in the Decorated Gothic style, providing a sharp contrast to the bleakness of the Norman nave, but its splendour did little to lighten Ralph’s mood.
He was getting really pissed off. Car trouble gladdens few hearts, and wandering around in a freezing cold abandoned building waiting for dawn and a friend who had been missing for over three days was adding to Ralph’s anger.
“Alan!” His shout echoed around the building. “You in here? Come on, man, don’t piss me about.”
No answer but the fading echoes. He slumped into a pew and lit a cigarette. He breathed out, smoke drifting to the ceiling in a thin trail, a ghostly vapour seeking company among the grinning gargoyles lurking in the vaulting.
Ralph drummed his fingers on the pew in front as he watched the smoke rise, savouring the warmth the cigarette gave him but feeling little of its usual calming effect.
In spite of his anger he was concerned for his friend and business partner’s welfare. Alan was eight years younger than him and had a strange sense of humour at the best of times, so luring a friend to a disused abbey would not be unusual behaviour for him. But Alan Peterson was serious when it came to business, so it was completely out of character for him to suddenly up and leave the car showroom in Didcot unmanned with no warning to his business partner.
Ralph had come in after a singularly unsuccessful attempt to sell a six year old Peugeot to some miserable old bastard who was contending for the Victor Meldrew Of The Year Award to find the showroom empty, his partner gone and the handset of the phone trailing on the floor. It hadn’t taken an Einstein to figure out that Alan had received some shattering news. But what? He had no family, both his parents were dead, he had no woman on the go at the moment; neither could he be involved in anything illegal. After knowing Alan Peterson for a good five years or so, Ralph Caines could safely say that criminal activity of any kind was not in the man’s character. So that only left…
Ralph’s thoughts were suddenly shattered by a low groan that emanated from a darkened recess in the arcade further on down on his left. He froze, the cigarette dropping from his fingers onto the cold stone of the floor. He stood up sharply as the groan was repeated, louder and more distinct this time. Frightened, but at the same time compelled to discover the source of the sound, he picked up the Maglite and crept down the length of the chancel, closer to the recess that now became visible as one of the archways.
It was an entrance to a separate room, half shrouded in darkness. He took a deep breath and stepped in.
In the glare of the torchlight, a plaque on the west wall indicated that this was the chapel of St Birinus, built in the 13th century in honour of the missionary who came to Mercia to baptise King Cynegils in 635 AD, creating the first West Saxon bishopric. A stained glass roundel in the opposing wall showed the man himself blessing the Saxon king.
Ralph was not interested in any of this. His attention – and now his Maglite - was drawn to a darkened figure on the floor. The darkness vanished to reveal a young, fair haired man dressed in black jeans and leather jacket slumped in the corner of the chapel. Covered in blood.
But it was not this that made Ralph shrink back in horror. For the blood that had soaked Alan Petersen’s clothes and coated his hands and face were not his own. At the sight of his friend’s horror-stricken face Alan lost his grip on the large, serrated hunting knife he was clutching. It clattered to the floor beside the corpse.
Alan looked into the older man’s eyes, pleading, begging for understanding. But Ralph was having great difficulty in accepting, let alone understanding the reason for the sight of a kindly-faced man in his late forties lying motionless in a pool of his own blood, steadily increasing as the gaping wound in his neck oozed more of the precious fluid. Dead, must be. No one could suffer a neck wound like that that and expect to live.
Not even a man of God.
“Alan…what in the name of Christ – “
“Christ?” Alan laughed harshly, regaining some of his composure. “Christ has nothing to do with this, believe me!”
Looking at the slaughter before him, Ralph silently agreed. He was chilled by the change that had come about in his friend, the crazed look in his eyes, the high, tremulous tone of his voice which seemed to suggest that its owner was on the verge of hysteria…and the undeniable proof that Ralph Caines was in the company of a murderer. He backed off slowly.
Seeing the reaction of his business partner, Alan raised a placating hand.
“Ralph, don’t be fooled. Nothing is what it seems here. This guy…” his lips drew back into a snarl as he looked at the corpse. “…this bastard is a part of it. He’s no priest.”
Ralph’s eyes narrowed. “Well, he sure ain’t now.”
”He’s not resting in the lap of the angels, either,” Alan snapped. He grasped the priest’s cassock and pulled it to one side. Flecks of blood flew into the air, luminous rubies in the harsh glare of the torch. Ralph’s eyes widened as he saw the gun clutched in the priest’s right hand, the grip tight on the stock as if the dead man intended to take the weapon to the grave with him.
“A Smith & Wesson .38 is not exactly standard service issue for the priesthood, is it?”
Ralph shook his head slowly. He sank to the floor, his eyes never leaving the revolver. It seemed an age before he could find his voice.
“Christ, mate, what have you got yourself into?”
Alan smiled mirthlessly. “Never realised medieval history could be so much fun, did you? Well, neither did I. Do you think I could have a cigarette?”
Ralph lit two cigarettes, passed one to Alan.
“Thanks.” Alan inhaled deeply, coughed slightly. “Well, I guess I owe you an explanation. But it all sounds so crazy I’m not sure you’ll believe me.”
“Try me. I’m guessing it started with the book you were writing. ” His friend was a keen amateur historian, and something of a local authority on the ancient and medieval history of the region, especially the abbey church.
Alan nodded and took another drag of the cigarette, visibly appearing to relax as the nicotine took effect.
“The book. Well, it started off as a guidebook, commissioned by the parish council. They were hoping that the abbey would be reconsecrated soon, made holy once more. My book would focus on the positive aspects of the building, try to play down the horrific events of last year. After all, the authorities believe that the killings were the work of a maniac with no connection to the church, and the abbey has many things to be proud off - ”
“Yeah, all right, Alan,” Ralph waved an irritated hand. “Just tell me why this made you disappear for three days.”
“I’m coming to that, Ralph. Believe me when I tell you that I had good reasons for doing so.”
“Well, believe me when I tell you that I went to the Old Bill and filed a Missing Persons report.”
Alan stiffened. “You’ve done what?”
Ralph frowned. “Well, what did you expect? You were gone for over two days, didn’t bother to get in touch or answer your mobile – “
“I had bloody good reasons not to!” Alan screamed. “You don’t have a clue what I’m up against.” He stood up and strode out into the chancel, visibly shaken. “Jesus, I hope they didn’t follow you.”
“Follow me?” Ralph stood up and followed his friend out of the chapel, confused. “Who would follow me – and why?”
Alan rounded on him, a terrified expression on his face. “The people who wanted to stay hidden – the ones who’ll kill us both to protect their secret.”
“Kill us? Why? I don’t – “
“And the police will be a part of it, they’ve always protected…them.” He looked anxiously towards the doorway. “We’ve got to get out of here. I thought we’d be safe in this place, it’s the last place they’d expect me to be – that’s why I phoned you, arranged our meeting here – but if there’s any chance that the cops have been following you we’d better find somewhere else – “
“Hang on, mate.” Ralph laid a restraining hand on Alan’s shoulder. “We ain’t going nowhere until you’ve told me what’s going on.”
Alan opened his mouth to protest, but seeing the determined look on his friend’s face he realised that there was no way he could count on the older man’s support unless he was told everything. So with a heavy sigh he motioned towards the nearest pew, sat down and told him everything. He told of the clues he had found in the parish records, clues that led him to a closer scrutiny of the ancient texts that told of the man known as St Birinus.
“Ok, the chapel we’ve just been in? That’s the chapel of Birinus. He was the main man in Dorchester in the 7th century. He went down in history as one of the leading lights of Christianity in Britain. Pope Honorious the first told him to go to Britain, sow the seeds of faith among the barbarians. He did more than that. He found the West Saxons completely heathen and decided to stay amongst them. Watch the seeds grow, you might say.
“A year later, in 635AD, the Christian King Oswald of Northumbria met the pagan King Cynegils of Wessex. In order to marry Oswald’s daughter, Cynegils had to be baptised, and it was Birinus who did it. It was a tremendous event; for the first time in England two powerful, Christian Kings were united. And of course, Birinus did well out of it. The Venerable Bede says that the two Kings gave Birinus Dorchester for his Episcopal see, and he used the wealth of the city to build and dedicate several churches.”
Alan shook his head. “You’d think the pope would be pleased. But what came after that was…unholy. There’s no other word for it.” He shuddered as the memory of what he had uncovered came back to him. “You see, Birinus had introduced Christianity to the region, but that doesn’t mean that everyone was converted immediately.”
“Guess not. Old habits die hard.” Ralph looked at his cigarette.
“For a while they didn’t die at all. Christianity and the pagan religions coexisted for many years before the former became the one faith of these lands. And during that period of coexistence, certain features of the old religion…merged with the new.
“I don’t need to tell you that many Christian festivals contain elements from the old Celtic ceremonies…”
“Mistletoe, Yule logs, shit like that?”
“Yeah, shit like that,” Alan replied testily. “And in Dorchester, something else. Sacrifice.
“Blood sacrifice. Birinus was initially appalled at this, the ultimate pagan act. But there was no way he could stamp it out. In fact, the reason he established such a firm foothold in the region was because he acquiesced to it.”
“What, turned a blind eye? Let it go ahead?”
“More than that. He took part.”
Ralph stared at his friend in shock. “He what? Did I hear you right?”
Alan nodded weakly, a pained expression on his face. “He was no Christian holy man. Just a very clever, extremely ruthless opportunist. It was power, land and riches he was after, and he used his religion as a very effective means of getting them. And his…his participation in the community’s darker festival strengthened his position here.
“The sacrificial ritual was performed once a year, on the winter solstice, to the goddess Badhbh, or the Morrigan – the ‘Phantom Queen’ who delighted in torture and mutilation. In return for the destruction of a chosen victim, the goddess Badhbh would bestow wealth and power upon her followers.”
In spite of the far-fetched tale he was hearing, Ralph shivered. “This happened regularly?”
“Year after year,” Alan replied. “Ever since…God, ever since the Celts practiced their religions. The more enlightened citizens of the Dorchester region were too terrified to speak out against it. Who wouldn’t be, when the most powerful members of the town – and the church – were devotees of the cult.”
“So…what’s all this got to do with us? Does it have any relevance today?”
“Because it’s still going on!” Alan screamed, pointing a shaking, bloodstained finger towards the grim chapel they had just left. “I was in Winchester yesterday when that guy realised what I’d found. He knew I was on to them, which is why he followed me back here.”
“And what were you doing in Winchester?”
“Confirming my suspicions. Ten years after Birinus died, when Mercia was threatening to go to war with this area, the Holy See was moved to Winchester and Birinus’ relics re-interred in the cathedral. That’s the story, anyway. Close inspection proves this never happened. His remains are not in the cathedral – they never have been, because he never died!”
Ralph rolled his eyes. “Oh, for fuck’s sake…”
“His devotion to Badhbh assured him of immortality, and so he’s continued his evil duties throughout the centuries. His two most trusted acolytes, also granted immortality in the form of dark ravens, to watch over him and assist – “
“Immortal fucking birds? That’s it, I’ve had enough.” Ralph stood up and strode angrily towards the doorway. He glanced at Alan over his shoulder, contempt on his face. “You are out of your fucking mind, pal. Too much reading, it’s knackered your brain.”
“I can prove it, Ralph. The killings still continue. Birinus was sloppy last year, leaving the bodies like that. He won’t make that mistake again.”
Ralph Caines threw his cigarette on the floor. The killings still continue. He glanced quickly at the entrance to the darkened, blood-stained chapel, thought of the body within…and the one responsible for his death.
He didn’t believe in secret cults that sacrificed people to ancient, mythic deities, but he did believe in the destructive powers of human madness. Too absorbed in the dark, blood-soaked history of the abbey, confusing myth with reality, Alan Peterson needed help.
Or perhaps Ralph Caines did. With a chill he remembered that the killer of the three corpses buried in the abbey gardens last year had never been found. And come to think of it…just where had Alan Peterson been at the time of the disappearances?
“Just keep calm, Alan. No-one else is getting killed.” Not me, that’s a dead cert, he thought as he pulled his mobile from his jacket pocket and made for the doorway in the People’s Chapel. Holding the Nokia firmly in his right hand, he placed his hand on the handle of the inner door. Strange, he didn’t remember closing the doors on his way in. Surprise gave way to concern when the door refused to budge. He replaced his phone and tugged hard at the doors with both hands. No good. The doors were firmly locked.
But how? No-one else was here, no-one had followed him…had they? He swallowed thickly, turned quickly when he heard Alan Peterson’s footsteps approaching.
“Ralph…were you followed? Did you see anyone else out there?”
“No. The Renault packed in on the bypass, I walked here. Didn’t see a soul, just a couple of ravens outside.”
Alan’s voice cracked. “Ravens? Oh Jesus Christ! They’re here…”
“Is there another way out of here?” Ralph barked, forcing himself not to panic.
“The doorway in the nave, on the north side,” Alan replied shakily, “but I don’t know where the key is.”
“Try your mate, the dead vicar.”
As Alan walked, trembling, back into the half-darkness, Ralph pulled out his Nokia again. He dialled 999.
“Emergency. Which service?” The operator’s voice was faint, almost inaudible. Ralph requested the police, had to repeat himself, almost shouting the words in an attempt to be heard.
“I’m sorry sir, I didn’t quite catch that. Did you say Dorchester Abbey? What are you doing in – “
A fierce burst of static followed, then complete silence. He tried again, but there was no answer. Not even a dialling tone. The line was dead.
A cold blast of wind raced in from the north side of the nave. Ralph turned sharply and saw that the door Alan had mentioned was open. But it wasn’t Alan who had opened it.
Ralph shrank back as three dark, hooded figures slowly filed in from the Cloister Garden. A chill crept down his spine as he saw they were heading for the chapel of Birinus. Where Alan and the dead priest lay.
Fighting to control the fear that had turned his bowels to ice water, he ducked behind a pew, squatting on shaking legs, peering around the heavy oak, hoping, praying even, that the pew would screen him from the intruders’ view. His eyes widened in horror and disbelief as he took in the sight that presented itself.
The sun had risen warily, sending a few cautious rays of light through the east window of the chapel to illuminate the scene as if it, too, was fearful of the hooded trio.
The three intruders were dressed in black, loose fitting monk’s habits, the cowls obscuring their features completely. Two of them were on either side of Alan, an iron grip on his arms and shoulders. Alan had not cried out when they had entered, his fear must have frozen him completely. The third intruder, his back towards Ralph, was raising a long, metallic, pointed object, its lethally sharpened edges glinting in the dawn light that fell from the clerestory windows.
The bearer of the sword was speaking, words issued in a creeping, insidious voice. A language Ralph had never heard of, did not recognise, but instinctively knew was an ancient, dead tongue.
Alan struggled and began to scream when he heard the words. He obviously knew what they meant.
The swordsman finished his speech and advanced towards his helpless captive, the tip of the sword pointed towards Alan’s neck. Alan shrieked as the blade touched the side of his neck, just enough pressure applied to break the skin. A drop of blood emerged and slowly crawled down the collar of his jacket, the sword tip following its descent.
Both stopped to a point just below the chest. With effortless grace, the dark swordsman adjusted his grip and ran his victim through the stomach.
Alan squirmed; too agonised even to scream as his assailant pulled the blade back and downwards, tearing through his midriff, right down to his pelvic bone.
The swordsman’s companions released their grip on Alan as his blood poured onto the cold flagstones, standing back to allow their leader enough room to strike the final blow. Alan sank to the floor, his legs buckling beneath him. His hands clutched his belly, staring in mute horror as his ripped intestines dropped onto the floor, steam wafting as they made contact with the cold flagstones.
He raised his head to stare at his murderer, an unformed plea on his lips.
Even had it been spoken, it would doubtless have been coldly ignored. The swordsman raised his weapon, and with a downwards swing sliced Alan Peterson’s head cleanly off his shoulders.
The killer reached down to pick the head up before it rolled through the archway towards where Ralph was crouched, too stunned by what he had witnessed to even give thought to the danger he was in.
Grasping the head by the fair hair, the swordsman turned to his comrades and brandished the grisly trophy. Their heads nodded once, slowly, in silent approval of the murder, and for a moment Ralph was reminded of the way the two ravens outside had lowered their beaks as they stared at him.
Now they turned their attention towards Ralph. Ralph couldn’t tell if they were surprised or not by his presence. He picked himself up and slowly, shakily, backed away. The sword bearer hissed sharply and raised his weapon, advancing towards the terrified salesman.
“For Badhbh!” he shrieked in a chilling, unearthly voice as he and his cohorts charged out of the chapel and down the length of the pew after him, their blood-soaked cassocks billowing like black and scarlet sails in a fierce gale. Ralph turned and ran.
Down the central aisle; he intended to escape through the same door the intruders had used, but they were too fast for him. As he reached the end of the aisle he tried to turn right but a claw-like hand tore at his shoulder, its owner moving around to block his escape.
Other hands landed on him, and with a cry of terror he flung them off before they could secure a grip. He ran on blindly through the nave, even though he knew that his only chance of escape was now shut off to him. The main doorway was locked, so there was no way of getting out of the abbey.
Then he saw the door directly in front of him. The bell tower. He could shut himself in there until –
One of the monks slammed heavily into him, knocking him to the ground. A vicious kick to his ribs took away his remaining breath and pain shot through his abdomen. The monks bent down and roughly hauled him up, spinning him round to face them.
Reacting with a speed and inner strength that surprised him as much as it did his assailants, he brought his knee up viciously into the groin of the monk facing him, who doubled up instantly. Ralph then spun the monk holding his left arm round and pushed him over the groaning body of the first. The last monk, holding the sword, released Ralph and backed off to give himself sufficient space to swing the weapon. But Ralph was too quick, and as the blade whistled towards him he jumped backwards, turning to the doorway. Praying to the God who had surely abandoned this church that the entrance wasn’t locked, he crashed into the doorway. His prayer was answered, as the thick oaken door swung inwards.
He crawled behind it and slammed the door shut, pulling down the heavy wooden crossbar. Heavy fists pummelled the beams, angry, screeching voices adding to the noise as the three intruders gave vent to their fury at their escaped quarry.
Ralph didn’t know how long the attack on the door lasted. It could have been a few minutes but it felt like hours. Mercifully, the stout timbers stood firm, seemingly impervious to the relentless attack. But how much more could it take?
Ralph crouched on the cold stone steps, curling himself into a ball as the sound he dreaded finally arrived. A loud, heavy crack heralded the end of his protective barrier, the wood split and the tip of the sword poked through, striking like an attacking viper. Ralph cringed, shrank back and feared the worst. He squeezed his eyes shut, sobbing quietly as the sword tip made contact with his cheek, grazing it.
Strangely, the weapon moved no further. It hung motionless in the crack as if abandoned by its wielder. Suddenly it was violently withdrawn and the pummelling ceased. Hardly daring to hope, Ralph stood up and moved to the hole in the door. Wiping the blood from his cheek he leaned his head cautiously towards the hole and listened – better a lost ear than an eye, he told himself - ready to pull his head back at any time.
He could hear the sound of two heavy doors being forced open, followed by the sounds of fleeing footsteps.
The sweetest words Ralph Caines had ever heard. With a sob of relief he pulled the crossbar aside, pulled open the door and stepped back into the nave. Two uniformed officers almost collided with him as they raced across to the north side of the abbey. A plain clothes officer came close behind and looked at Ralph.
“Are you the gentlemen who called, sir?”
Ralph nodded, a relieved smile on his face.
“Well by the looks of things we came not a moment too soon.” He indicated the battered, broken door. “That wasn’t going to take much more damage.”
“Sir?” One of the uniforms had re-entered the north door, panting heavily. “They’ve gone.”
“Gone?” his superior barked. “What do you mean, gone?”
“They’ve disappeared. Just…just vanished. We saw them reach the tree out back and they…well, they disappeared.”
“Don’t talk crap, Miller. People don’t just disappear.”
“It’s true, sir,” the second officer joined Miller at the open doorway. “Weirdest bloody thing I ever saw. It’s like they just…merged into that yew tree out there.”
The plain clothes man was silent. Without a word to Ralph he went to the door and pushed past the uniformed officers, into the Cloister Garden. Ralph followed, a feeling of dread rising from the pit of his stomach to form a large lump in the back of his throat. He swallowed noisily.
The weak dawn sunshine cast a faint, ghostly light over the dew soaked garden. The mist had almost dispersed fully, apart from a few small, unwilling wisps which clung to the yew tree in the centre of the garden. Dark shapes rustled in the upper branches.
“You’re sure they didn’t get to the trees at the far end?”
“Positive, sir,” Miller’s reply to Ralph was curt, irritated. “Once again, as crazy as it sounds, those two…monk-like figures made a beeline to that yew and melted into it.”
The second uniform nodded in agreement, a bewildered look on his young face.
“Hang on a minute,” Ralph snapped. “Two figures? There were three of them attacking me.”
The two policemen looked at each other. Miller rolled his eyes.
“No, sir,” he was fighting to remain civil. “When we came in there were only two of them banging away at that door.”
“There were three!” Ralph screamed. “What about the guy with the sword?”
“Sword? What sword?” The younger officer was getting irritated by Ralph now. “They were unarmed as far as I could tell.”
My God, I’m going mad, Ralph thought. He looked up at the yew tree, as though it could give him answers. Two pairs of eyes stared back.
The two ravens had returned.
“Perhaps our superior will have a better idea,” Miller sighed. “After all, he got here before we did.”
Ralph’s heart almost stopped at this revelation. He slowly turned, cast fear-filled eyes at the approaching CID man.
“All right lads, I’ll take care of it from here.” The plain clothes man had a long, cloth-wrapped bundle held casually over his left shoulder. “Get back to the station. DCI Roberts will take care of you.”
The two uniforms looked uncertain. “You sure, sir? I don’t know how he’ll take our tales of vanishing monks!”
Their superior smiled. “Relax. Just say you saw Birinus’ assistants in action.”
Looks of relief – and awe - appeared on the faces of both uniformed officers.
“It’ll be an honour, sir.” The second officer’s words were barely audible in the stiff breeze that suddenly sprang up, rustling the branches of the yew.
They respectfully withdrew as their superior pulled the black cloth covering away from his burden. The covering, that could only have been a monk’s habit, had smeared the blood on the sword, but the edges still gleamed brightly. The plain clothes officer brandished the sword gracefully, effortlessly, just as he had when he had taken Alan Peterson’s life in the chapel of Birinus.
“For Badhbe!” he whispered, and thrust the sword. Ralph’s agonised scream echoed around the Cloister Garden. In the yew tree, the two ravens looked on in silent approval.