Daily they toiled by light of torch and flame until well past the departure of the unskilled workmen, and later the disappearance of the sun’s glow on the broken tower on the hill to the east that on clear days stood as a candle of stone above the estate. That sentinel watched them all, behind closed doors and in the fields. What edifice of man could hide him from God’s searching eye? Few places shared the Lord’s favour as did this great abbey, such that even the hallowed marble and polished stone of every outhouse, kitchen and storeroom yet under construction seemed to have borrowed a design from Heaven itself. None could doubt that this was revered ground, not the holy men resident, not the men and women who lived across the marshes, not the builders and masons honoured in setting its abbey church to repair and refinement.
All of which only came into sharper consideration when those builders and masons were that evening dismissed from their tasks earlier than usual, bestowing two gifts rarely afforded and more rarely unwelcome to men who laboured for coin – time and self-reflection.
“If this isn’t a sign, then we’re no cleverer than a dumb ox,” grumbled the burly Maredudd, by far the biggest of them all, worming his way deeper beneath the thick hedge that bordered the abbey’s northern path, in doing so crunching the dead leaves that had not yet turned to soggy mulch under that floral shelter. He was blessed and laden with a sonorous voice that could traverse from hillside to hillside, or on a tranquil night as tonight, pronounce the breadth of an abbey’s estate.
“Quiet,” Meinon snapped. The master builder of Elwin, renowned mason of arches and vaults, had already found himself entangled in honeysuckle and hazel growth and dared not move, not for fear of discovery but that he might lose more of his tunic to the merciless clawing of blackthorn brambles. “If any must talk, it can’t be you.”
Maredudd’s response hushed to a low rumble that still threatened to shake the bushes like a small earthquake. “Bollocks to that. Greatly pleased with your progress, the abbot said. A true credit to the Lord that your hands have wrought here, he said.”
“Enough. It’s no concern. More time to make sure everything goes to plan. No monks walk past this way at this time, anyway.”
But they all knew it to be a concern, lying there with their toolbags in the hollow they had subtly excavated under the hedge outside the church’s north porch. This was as close as they might come to their worksite beyond the nave’s scaffold-riddled eastern end without remaining within the church itself. Of the three Welshmen hiding in the foliage, Meinon carried the burden of having personally received the instructions dictating what they decided would be enacted that very evening. The winter’s afternoon had barely expired – a meagre shade of daylight lingered away to the west, chased off under the inky expanse of a wispy sky; off to the northeast the new moon failed to make itself known. A dark night was promised. The elements held up their end of the bargain, but God had cast His first die through the charity of Abbot John.
“Don’t get cold feet now,” Ioab the mason, third of the trio, chided Maredudd beside him. No matter how still they lay their leaf bedding rustled in protest. “They’ll find you stuck with a knife if you do.”
“Double down on your condemnations, lad,” Maredudd chuntered. “Hell will accept you for any of our coming sins.”
Were both men warning he himself, Meinon wondered? Unblinking he watched the path for the approach of Leuchu, Iaob’s wife. Of course, for her to tarry on the abbey grounds in daylight hours in sight of the brothers was out of the question, and so she was intended to join them from their settlement at The Gaels at the culmination of the day’s work. Leuchu did not have far to come from that colony on the village’s edge, where happily resided pilgrims and itinerant labourers, devout alike, from Britain’s farthest reaches, free of discrimination if they openly disavowed of the ongoing Welsh uprising. She should not be long. She could not be.
They had no quarrel with the abbey or its brothers, therefore the master builder withheld a curse against the kindness given them by Abbot John, who sentenced them to a lengthier wait in the hedge for Leuchu and a greater risk of being caught loitering on the abbey grounds after dismissal. Walking home across the estate was expected behaviour; lying down in a darkened corner was not.
Ioab grunted. “Leuchu’ll be the one who sticks you, Duff, not me.” None doubted the girl’s enthusiasm for vengeance and Maredudd quietened awhile in contemplation. Of vengeance plenty was promised to her that evening, either towards the king of the English or whomever arrested it. She was lithe and athletic with the build of a hungry cat, capable of darting in to exploit the heavy lifting of the builders around her and executing the task that Meinon suspected those same could not. He feared hers to be the most crucial role of them all.
A short time passed, filled with the whistling of wind through skeletally bare branches of apple trees behind them, but the booming Maredudd could not help himself. “She won’t get me. They’ll take her first for walking around here with tits and no cock.”
“Half the brothers have here have no cock,” Ioab snorted.
Meinon’s furious whispers cut as a saw through a branch. “I said, shut it. Are you two trying to gain attention? Naming calls. There’s nothing to bring the monks here. We’d have been here anyway. It makes no difference.”
True, so long as no monks came by, they were safe from fallible human ears there on the abbey’s north side, that darkened track where the monks seldom turned an eye. Only the gentle creatures of the night went there, deer and rabbits who would not betray the wagging tongues of men. Nor would these nervous, reticent creatures announce to the world that the builders had not returned to The Gaels.
Except it did make a difference. The plan was meticulous, and God had nudged it askew right from the off.
With these thoughts gnawing as hungry rats on the granary wall of Meinon’s composure there came from the west a slow shuffle of footfalls slopping in the path’s soft mud. The builders froze, rejecting mockery, worry and breathing as the sounds approximated closer to the muttering of the local English tongue. Meinon’s grey eyes, untameable by darkness, met those of Maredudd. An early test had arrived for the sonorous repentant. He’s attracted bad luck already.
“…using the abbot as a busybody, they say. A messenger. Imagine that! A messenger!” rasped one roamer.
“He’s just currying favour,” said another, recognisable as the forthright Brother Gilbert Herring. Widely known was Brother Gilbert’s abhorrence for idle chatter, a staple for taciturn Benedictines the world over. But what abbey grew to prominence as this without some speculation of the secular in whose midst they existed? “Hedging his bets. Huge swathes of lands out in that part of Essex. And they need him, all of them, else who’d feed the city?”
In that idle time before compline their progress was plodding, as if they toyed with the paralysed Welshmen, lethargically and inadvertently goading the sinners caught in their subterfuge. The small pall of torchlight carried by one of the monks teased through the twigs and sprouts of the hedge in a halfhearted threat of exposure. At their closest the pair walked within a yard of each man there sheltering, separated from discovery by their oblivious speculation conducted in the estate’s calmest corner, secure from the disciplinary ripostes of brother or superior.
Or maybe God.
“He’s just hosted a battle on his own land, under the nose of the King’s men,” the first monk replied. He was Anselm, Meinon reckoned, a small, grey man often in the employ of Abbot John for delegatory purposes. Well versed with the goings on of the wider world, always riding off or riding back, couriering letters here and satchels there. “Having just hosted that investigation camp. And we know the rumours about what happened during both investigation and battle.”
Gilbert went on in passing. “I suppose there’s an element of redeemable humility in such stooping, even if it is to remove the stain of those nonsense farmers’ tales.”
“Foggy times ahead when abbots are running errands the novices could undertake. I might be considered an abbot at this rate,” spoke Anselm’s quietening voice, for at last they had put a reassuring distance between themselves and the Welshmen.
“Ambitions aren’t becoming of you, Anselm…”
And then the soft breeze established its dominance again to the accompaniment of leafy rustling, veiling sighs of relief. “I told you,” Maredudd began with a depth to his intonation that could be mistaken for a cow’s distant lowing, “every act is against our plan.”
Grey-eyed Meinon did not have time to conjure the conviction required for steadying his own ship, let alone his wavering crew mates. “You are calling the brothers to you, Duff,” whispered a sudden female voice from the left that nearly burst the heart in Meinon’s chest. All subtlety was lost in their noisy about turns to the interloper, shoulders snagging on branches, hair caught in thorns; Meinon could not see where she was since Gilbert and Anselm had taken the last of the twilight upon their departure.
Exhalations and clearing of throats punctuated the ambience of winter’s night. “Bloody hell, woman,” was all Ioab could say to the arrival of his wife.
“That was not what we agreed,” Meinon concurred. “You’re early.”
Leuchu’s silhouette crawled into discernment and brought with her a scathing tone. “Early? What’s this then? It wasn’t agreed that you’d be slacking from work before compline. Has Griff gone?”
“He has. The bells are due.”
“Good. I’ve heard everything you said, by the way. And I will put a knife in you, Duff,” to which Maredudd murmured in resentment.
She scarcely displaced a leaf in crawling between Ioab and Meinon, although her fervour radiated like jumping flames at a hearth and was no less a risk to the combustible plans as Maredudd’s budding penitential pessimism. “We wait,” Meinon insisted to her bubbling impatience. “There are sixty brothers the other side of those walls. We wait until Griff’s completed his work.”
“And then wait a little longer?” Leuchu challenged. “What’ll the Dragons say to this edginess, master?”
Her words soaked him in contempt; nevertheless those same Dragons had instilled a discipline to the task that just about held in the face of that task’s implications. “The Dragons’ll have nothing to say to those who wake the dead on their behalf,” was his cold response, and it cast over all four of them a cold silence.
They waited, quelled until the bells for compline peeled at last to call the brothers to the newly-finished Abbot’s Chapel south of the main church. Leuchu beside him twitched, agitated, earning a firm hand of restraint about her arm. He would not allow her to rashly spoil the plot’s execution. Perhaps it was contradictory to combat his moral dilemma for this mission by turning his thoughts to Griff’s current unsavoury task, but his mind’s eye pictured the progress of that vulpine youth to the nascent Abbot’s Kitchen, still under construction, so christened to distinguish it from the monks’ own. Should he pray? Was that appropriate?
The darkness was darkest behind the latrine at the south end of the dormitory. In its shadow Griff had hunkered down and thence he emerged sixty heartbeats after the final clang from the bell tower. Necessity kept him to the shadows whilst rushing westward in Benedictine black, a disguising habit across the grass between the dormitory and the monk’s kitchen – for most of the braziers lined the top end of that garden towards the refectory – and so again when skirting the southern end of the Abbot’s Garden. That enclosure’s wall did not reach a man’s shoulder and Griff relied on the taller shrubbery for cover should any brother turn his eye southwards, or Abbot John himself, emerging from his lodging en route to the fine new chapel bearing his title, where within his sermons were to be heard that night. Such was the timing for Meinon’s plan. Any later than the evening sermon and prayers and a swarm of monks would return to the main church for the arduous job of maintaining and relighting every candle therein.
No bodily disaster would here come were Griff to fail, so long as he remained unnoticed – escaping to The Gaels under cover of night was a simple enough task. There was no accounting for the displeasure of the Dragons, however. It needs must be executed tonight.
Griff darted from the walled garden’s periphery to the timber frames dressed in broad canvas sheeting for rainproofing, extensive but gaunt predecessors to the solid stone required of a kitchen and the ovens it bore, and finding below the low beams and brushwood faggots awaiting a different purpose to which the nimble youth would put them.
He rifled through the bundles and was pleased to note that the builders had left more than he and Meinon had anticipated. Above these the scaffolding was cold but dry, mostly protected from the damp of winter, creating an enclosed lattice that rose out of the foundational blocks already laid in the deep pits where would live the ovens. Into one of these Griff dropped and went about his work, laying out the sticks and twigs and the small clay pot in which was carried the modest, vital charcloth from which so much was promised.
Sheltered below ground level he could work undisturbed as Abbot John pontificated in his chapel less than fifty yards away. Finally he removed his gloves and with clammy hands from a pocket withdrew flint and firesteel, legs braced to leap backwards and into the safety of moonless night before the first licks of smoke might dance beneath the canvas canopy.
Fire, like a savage hound both friend and foe to man, was a terrible spectre to the brothers of the abbey. Much of the stone scorched and timber burned in the great fire over a century prior was nigh replaced and more still awaiting institution – to which the master builder Meinon had turned his talents until this very night – but it was what had been lost to conflagration that scarred the community, though none alive today had witnessed it. Gone for good were the interred remains of saints, holy relics beyond count, tomes and treasures. Records of records were all that remained, only as complete as man’s own incomplete memory.
Fire, then, was the primary fear of the abbey’s residents. Fire of the Earth and fire of the soul, both of which would burn down God’s temple. Neither were visitors to the complex spared a regimen to deter the spiritual brimstone, for Abbot John of Kent was a man of his brethren, elected from amongst their number, the Benedictine Rule made flesh. Working within the complex rendered the builders honorary brothers, Abbot John decreed, absent of accommodation but adequately compensated through receipt of prayers thrice daily on their behalf, taken as a choral draught to wash down a hearty serving of indigestible Latin.
And yet for all its loss, all the ancestral trauma afflicting the freshest of novices, this venerable isle of monasticism housed a value far in excess of any treasures that fate might condemn to flames. For this reason Meinon had no intention of causing a dire, devouring conflagration – a distraction was all he required, one to be exacerbated by Griff rushing about in his Benedictine habit, and in the darkness and confusion few brothers would likely identify this spirited imposter amongst their number. Meinon determined to have the unfinished Abbot’s Kitchen burned down because it lay clear of all other buildings in the complex. In any case, the brothers already had one kitchen; what opulence a second when so many went hungry outside the estate’s walls?
No, this place was renowned to the English and Welsh alike, the Norman lords and the commons who hailed from the old Saxon stock, the Cornish, the Bretons from across the sea who visited in easier times. For its renown, immeasurable riches had been carried thither by king and clergy alike, far beyond the ornaments and trinkets that surrounded the builders as they worked day in, day out. Meinon had no interest in ornaments nor trinkets.
“He’s taking too long,” Maredudd muttered, and this time his comrades were in agreement.
The breeze had died down as if the world itself held breath before such audacity. Another leaf crunched underbody. Ioab sniffed softly in the frigid air. Meinon wondered if his quickening heartbeat was audible to Leuchu or if it was the hammering in her chest he now heard; his back ached from lying too long in the same position, threaded with the cold’s prying tendrils, tightening muscles already taut with tension. The dead await us, he thought. He worried that the abbot’s sermon would soon conclude, freeing the brothers to return to the church itself. The dead know we are not worthy.
Untold moments had passed when the great bulk of Maredudd’s body began a slow retreat free of Meinon’s disapproval, for in that instant the master builder reflected most solemnly indeed that his flair did not extend beyond compass and square to the fine arts of graverobbing.
Another resounding whisper was born only to die in Maredudd’s throat at a far-distant disturbance. “God will not-”
Voices. Voices arose from the other side of the church, excited and eager through the evening’s charged climate, improbable in a world of monastic restraint and discipline. Indistinct they stopped Maredudd and shook Meinon from a risible defeatism that now was as bile, such that he almost retched to expel its taste from his mouth. A greedy smile crawled across Leuchu’s thin lips that the master builder did not see. Feeling the gaze of the three fellow conspirators on him – all impetuous in their own ways but adherent to his final decision – he did not know if took two, three, ten or a hundred breaths to decide. They had come too far not to proceed.
“What are you waiting for? Go, go!”
All four bolted forwards in disregard to the brambles’ desire to keep them and steal their tool satchels, scrambling to their feet and sprinting through pitch black for the door of the northern porch, navigating by muscle memory enhanced with the adrenaline of moral uncertainty. For days they had waited and now they pounced with varying degrees of hunger. Meinon was first to reach the door, which was unlocked as envisaged – who after all would creep in by night to steal the treasures of so important an abbey – treasures gifted to God! – and expect to evade attention beyond a few days? That was an implausible crime, the master builder told himself, whilst slipping into the building site that was the church’s nave, hauntingly illuminated by the reverence of a thousand dying candles. Left into the shadows he ran with Maredudd in hot pursuit, between the columns and the northern wall on their way to commit an act even more inconceivable, so unthinkable that its very gall could cloak them in the mists of anonymity for months before reasonable minds had fathomed its undertaking.
Eight boots thudded around the richly-decorated ceramic tiling, palatial in aspect, that spoke brazenly of the abbey’s fabulous wealth. No monks were there, gifting the first victory of the evening. Knowing the church’s interior from description alone, Leuchu ran athwart the nave to bar the doorways from the cloister and the southern transept, the latter scarcely clear enough of unused stone, boards, rope coils and upturned buckets coated in the dust of construction to confer any route at all for pedestrian traffic. Ioab made for the archway through to the Lady Chapel to the east, the only section of the main abbey to have been completed in the wake of this significant rebuild. He quickly set about cutting the ropes that rang the bells that lived in the tower above, a perilous task whereby excessive enthusiasm could set them singing at precisely the moment their silence was vital.
Silence was Meinon’s ally and so too Maredudd’s, hitherto teetering but now too far gone to withdraw, and they scampered around the scaffolding that supported their daytime labours, furnishing the lofty arches and vaulting, clambering through the dust sheeting and protective shell frame erected around the grand marble tomb before the high altar at the church’s eastern end, centrepiece to the renovation. Candles sat around the corners of this makeshift pavilion and the underlit effect thereof lent greater majesty to the monument than its status already enjoyed.
Here was the heart of the abbey, the heart of England as decreed by the acts of King Edward Longshanks and his queen Eleanor eighteen years before, when they had had this jet monument raised and the contents therein reconsecrated and laid to rest. Four lions carved at the tomb’s base, one to each corner, snarled up at these familiar faces who returned at an unfamiliar time, but they were auxiliary to the arraignment of two skulls each resting on a cushion of purple silk at the foot of the tomb, overlooked by a meticulous relief portrait of the intended targets also staring out to the pair in callous disapproval, and these were what most seriously shook the builder’s poise.
For those skulls were the skulls of King Arthur and Queen Gwenhwyfar of Albion, and the effigies their likenesses, and this their tomb that held the rest of their bones at the centre of the most holy abbey of Ynys Wytrin, Glastonbury to the locals – in an earlier age the Isle of Afallon itself, many said – and Meinon and his builders were tasked to rescue king and queen from their Angevin imprisonment herein so that they could rise again to lead the Britons to their promised golden destiny. The cunning King Edward Longshanks had had Arthur and Gwenhwyfar publicly reburied at Glastonbury for all Britain to see, the heart of a mausoleum to his predecessors, categorically removing any doubt that the greatest king of them all was dead and that he, Edward, was in succession rightful ruler of England and Wales. Pilgrims from far and wide could see the skulls and know that Arthur’s reign had ended. But Arthur had merely retired to Afallon for healing, and his return was long nigh.
So it was affirmed by many others, foremost amongst whom the Dragons of Wales.
All the same, Meinon’s thoughts turned this way and that at disturbing a king and queen at rest. He was a mere builder, no celebrated king himself nor august priest or sage privy to the song of history and foresight heralded on every breath of wind and every blade of grass and every ray of sunlight. He was in God’s house, stealing away two bodies laid to rest under holy ritual. Well might big Maredudd vacillate. Everyone knew there was something about Glastonbury, too much history and legend hewed into the very stones that raised its buildings.
Every day within those buildings Arthur and Gwenhwyfar had watched him work with eyeless sight, every day knowing what he eventually intended. Endlessly the living may be fooled whilst they have eyes to see, but Meinon understood the dead to be endowed with God’s own omniscient blessings without being able to act upon it, not even so powerful a king as Arthur, who with his queen languished at the whim of English kings who could expressly profit from keeping closed the pages of mythic history.
“We bring liberation,” he assured himself, his comrade and the effigies adorning the tomb’s frontage as Maredudd hurried by. “Forgive me, my king, my queen,” he then pleaded with them when gently lifting their silk platters to the cloth-lined wooden box left by the tent’s entrance a week earlier just for this purpose. No more gently did he ever lay down his own children in their infancy than he did in securing the church’s most fragile treasures, swaddling each skull in the thickest, softest wool that could fill that makeshift casket.
A liberation. Freeing the Britons from Angevin dominance just as are our allies in the field, Meinon repeated to himself; assuredly his targets too were listening from within their chest. The sooner they stopped watching him the better.
The hubbub from outside, raised at discovery of Griff’s fire, could no longer be heard within the church and that makeshift tent. Instead it was the clanking of tools that rang out from the bags they still carried from their more conventional and honest day jobs, each man delving for the brutal implements of tomb invasion, chaotic hammers and merciless chisels that would chip away at the wax-lined sealant of lime mortar unifying lid and body. Such jitters with tools to hand had not come to the master builder since his trade’s noble arms were first thrust into his possession as a boy, when his father bade him effect repairs to the crossbeams beneath the roof of Dore Abbey. God watched him then and more directly threateningly did the resident abbot, a severe man with little patience for the errors of professional masons let alone their fumbling apprentices. Hands soon clamming, Meinon attacked the mortar on his side knowing that any failure here would bring down far greater scorn upon his head.
The general racket of construction had afforded intermittent opportunities to work at the seal during the day, painting over their handiwork on the off chance a Benedictine brother might approach, as was their wont. Not quickly enough did the remaining mortar flake under the chisel’s relentless onslaught, no matter Meinon’s skill in application, and the obsidian eyes of the two lions on his side watched with feline inscrutability whilst the skulls listened from the front. Nor could he hear the same tap-tap-tap from across the tomb, blocked from view by the height of the marble and its crowning silver crucifix, simple and powerful. “Get a move on,” he urged Maredudd, accelerating his own work and listening to his fretting comrade rummaging through his satchel.
“I know what I’m supposed to bloody do! Where the bloody hell is it?” Metal clinked and man cursed before both men paused in dread at a heavy thump somewhere behind them. Meinon told himself it to be Ioab closing and barring the door to the Lady Chapel. He restarted. Round the rear left corner he went and the burn of frantic hammering seized both arms. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap thrummed the chisel and small hammer and the mortar descended like snowfall upon Meinon’s arms and lap.
“Chisel, Duff, chisel!”
“Come on, come on!” His individual senses latched on to a hundred different indicators of progress and detection, most egregious of all the big man’s scraping and cussing and scrabbling around the deliberate debris of that conspiratorial workshop.
“Are you trying to fail, man?” Meinon was increasingly aghast at the other’s unsubtle reluctance and conspicuous intention to sabotage, but Maredudd did not answer. Then the canvas door flew open to near stop his heart again, his wide grey eyes taking treacherous instants to recognise Ioab, dishevelled with industry and extrication from the canvas sheeting. “You think the Dragons’ll excuse you for losing your tools? Get to work!”
Ioab slid to where Meinon’s satchel was heedlessly strewn upon the tomb’s floor step, retrieving instruments to join his countryman’s assault. Only the hammering of heart and lungs matched the speed of his craft, hands and arms near vibrating in synchronous fury. At last all three joined that surgery necessitating laborious precision and the black tomb obliged in testing the finesse of their workmanship. Completing the audience, Leuchu bounded in with catlike silence, another cause for jumpiness to fraying nerves – her stifled speech was eager, her urgency palpable, before resuming the unforgiving vigil beyond the threshold of their work tent. “Monks are in the chapel, trying to ring the bells! Get a move on!”
The words struck with a whip’s severity across those hurrying hands. Complaints from the Lady Chapel neighbouring the church’s western end sifted through the frenzy of chipping and hammering to pricked ears. The bestirred brothers were coming closer – if the Welsh working away within their scaffolding tent might hear the muffled fretting of Benedictines unable to ring the warning bells, then the vandalism by hammer and chisel would not be lost in the other direction. Urgently, unnecessarily Meinon hushed his apprehensive team as the consternation rose.
“They’ve heard, they’ll come through,” Maredudd worried from behind the marble’s tall covering.
The effigies at the tomb’s front eyed Meinon with knowing suspicion, challenging him to respond. He thought to Griff, somewhere in the dark out there, and urged him to conjure a distraction for the distraction he had already created.
“Damned either way now. Get this lid off,” he declared, conscious to how precariously Maredudd’s heart wavered above the precipice of contrition. Big Duff yet held firm with tools to hand but there was no knowing his commitment once the monks sought entry to their own church. Discarding the hammer and chisel onto the cloth bag to soften any clatter, he reached for the pickaxe left by the foot of the scaffolding’s northern tower, and threw all he had into cracking the remaining sealant in one, two and then three thudding strikes. Maredudd and Ioab assaulted under the same method to the other side that they might finish the job in fewer blows, all subtlety cast to the wind.
On the third crack the last of the sealant crumbled and, barely holding his tongue as the two opposite completed their noisy onslaught, he threw a shoulder to the lid, straining against its enormous weight as Leuchu came running in anew, frantic and scathing, vitriol unhampered by the whisper of her speech. “Idiots! Have you lost your senses? You’ll bring all the brothers in, and then the church down on top of us all!”
Amongst all those on the estate it was she who posed the gravest threat to Meinon and, inching the lid back along its sturdy sidewalls to shuddering-inducing scraping, he did not doubt her desire to silence all their efforts there and then. “Enough,” was all he could grate to stop her complaining, but the unmistakable grind of rock on rock inflamed the agitated woman further and as a wary pigeon her head swivelled for any sign of intrusion from the northern porch, the builders’ sole route for exit.
“They’re trying the door by the chapter house,” she hissed, but the jet monolith would not concede its treasure any more quickly.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Meinon grumbled between breaths, finding irritation in every heave, sound and utterance. Honest labour, honourable labour did not bring these rewards.
They heaved and heaved with Leuchu hovering about as helpful as a fly pestering a beast of the field. “Keep it straight! If a corner falls inwards, the king and queen aren’t in any state to take its weight.”
“If it falls off, it’ll bring everyone in here,” Ioab added, and through all that carnage of his bewildered mind Meinon envisioned the very roof of the church itself crashing down around them, the arches worked and crafted by he and his team crumbling into dust to bury them all.
“We can barely move it,” Maredudd countered. “You think any of us could hold it up on their own?”
Leuchu dashed around the side as a guide to the men’s shunting, futile in the lethargy of their inching progress, swiftly returning to the near end, holding aloft a candle and peering into the musty black of a long-closed tomb punctuated with an outburst of excitement. “The chests! I can see them. Keep pushing.”
Meinon had need for neither instruction nor candle heat in the sweltering tension. They kept pushing and were not detracted from their labours by the lure of the legend within. Leuchu slipped between Meinon and Maredudd and hindered neither, gracefully climbing up to the tomb’s lip and leaning in with a slender arm. “More space! I need more space.”
There was no hiding from the chill of that wintry eve but perspiration glistened down Meinon’s face. They were too close to contemplate the sickening possibility of discovery and failure, the trepidation itself all that distracted from the disquiet of opening a grave and plundering its bodies. He could taste anxiety on the air, infusing the sweat-soaked odour perforating the cramped enclosure beneath the canvas, marginally more pleasant than the fetor released after a generation of confinement. Grunting scarcely aided muscles outmatched by the weight of the lid, joined by the attempts of the Glastonbury brothers to open the barred doors.
Leuchu reached in and just as quickly recoiled in disgust from the black of the sarcophagus that swallowed almost all candlelight. “I can’t get to them, there’s something else-”
“Get in the fucking tomb, woman,” Meinon growled and she did not baulk, diving in once more as the lid edged ever onwards.
“I have it,” she declared this time, pulling back more carefully than she plunged in.
“There are two, one for each. Careful!” Meinon scowled, half watching her progress.
She groaned with struggle at the awkward extraction, pulling a small box between the lid and lip with precious little tact. “Give me more space and I’ll bring both out, then.” Falling back into the low light Leuchu held a parcel wrapped in a purple shawl that fell away at the lightest touch, disclosing the modest casket secured with a seal, not immediately discernible. A slight jolting of the contents within halted her motion and prompted a moment of terrified enthrallment from the four, none ignorant of the dishonour thereby dealt to the king or queen within. Meinon leaned in to study the circular seal to the box and just made out a king seated and sceptred, a splendid throne motif behind that extended unto an outer ring housing symbols indistinguishable for a man without letters.
“Is it the right one?” Maredudd asked, almost too delicately for the intensity just exercised.
Meinon suspected his manner as hoping it would not be. “The seal’s correct, it’ll have to do. The other one, quickly.”
Leuchu handed the casket to the master builder and clambered back to the tomb’s edge to reunite king and queen, and Ioab and Maredudd loitered full to the brim with nervous energy. The second casket, bearing the identical seal of King Edward, was removed altogether more artfully but still slow for the men onlooking who had completed their roles. Stepping forwards, Maredudd exchanged the briefest of looks with his master to find only cold resolution. “A fine path between sainthood and sin,” offered the big man.
Meinon gestured for the latter to take the second casket from Leuchu. “Too late for distinctions now. Leuchu, take that chest there,” he added, collecting a hammer and a knife to slide into his belt in so doing. “And tool up.”
“Shall I ask the monks to wait whilst you tidy the mess?” she asked.
Ready to sink either implement into the next of his team to question him, the master builder secured the first small casket under the crook of his arm and made for the hanging door. “Shall we travel without arms? What do you think?”
Something else then snared him. “What are you doing?” he demanded of Ioab who had stopped to kneel down, hammer and chisel ready for further work.
“Proof of our visit,” the resourceful mason explained, beheading one of the sculpted lions in a matter of moments. No words came to the master builder watching the skilful decapitation that spared not the mane, although Ioab managed a smile strange in the circumstances before they were then off.
Ioab and his lion head led the way from the sheltered tomb, wielding a hammer that he had little intention to use having exhausted its original purpose within that church. None of them – Leuchu included – did with their tools to hand whilst they remained under the roof of their erstwhile employers who were peaceable and unarmed and holy above all. None sought to return, either. Behind him Meinon and Maredudd lumbered with the valued treasures rattling frightfully at their canter, and Leuchu was at the rear with the chest of skulls. The finest tailors, seamsters and carpenters’ talents combined were all defeated in conjuring a vessel to bear without disturbance the worthiest of worthies, already twice awakened from eternal slumber, Meinon regretted. Every knock of bone against bone and bone against box caused him to wince in dismay.
As a chorus to their troubles, banging resounded against the church’s barricaded southern doors as more brothers caught on to the coincidence of spontaneous fire and locked buildings, hurrying the builders in their precarious progress towards the north porch where few monks ventured during times of ordinary devotion. Meinon could not remove his fearful eyes from that northern doorway as each knock echoed from sombre pillars and curving arches, and splendid likenesses of the saints in their stern piety and the Lord in the goodness of His ultimate passion. Judgement was everywhere and nowhere escapable.
The door of the north porch opened before Ioab could reach for its brass handle, revealing that the shaken nest of monks were not so naïve in matters of deceit. The Welshmen came to a sliding halt, for the darkness admitted could not hide that the fellow revealed in the doorway was a robed brother, unmoved in the hubbub and faintly illuminated by a single torch held at his left. Meinon was horrified that God had at last truly divulged His perception through a sheep of His most pious flock called forth by fire into the night; so too Ioab, standing uselessly with hammer to hand, all too apparent in the low candlelight to their solitary opponent, who for the shadows attending him appeared all the larger in his goodly purpose.
“You,” the monk accused in his native English, revealing himself as Brother Anselm, “what is your business in the church…?”
Stammering, Ioab twitched with indecision and turned back to Meinon. “Who is there with you?” Anselm challenged further, showing no such alarm as paralysed the Dragons’ proxies who dared spirit away the greatest of the Britons. He came forward across the threshold and in curiosity studied the hammer in Ioab’s hand, then the lion head in the other. Not yet did he notice Ioab’s companions, although there was nowhere for Meinon, Maredudd or Leuchu to hide themselves, standing uselessly in Ioab’s wake and none of them delivering on a scenario they all dreaded; not the master builder who received the instructions directly, not Maredudd who had been apologetic before stepping foot inside the church, not Leuchu who least shrank from divine retribution at this desecration.
“Please, brother, if you’d step aside…”
Anselm glanced up to the trio arrayed behind the hammer with a man attached.
“You scoundrels… we should have known,” the monk professed most contemptuously. “Did you fire the kitchen? And cut the bell ropes? At a church?”
“What are you waiting for?” Meinon urged Ioab, in a shaming tone he did not recognise; to his conflicted relief – given it condemned them to probable capture and definitely worse – Ioab did not raise the hammer an inch.
Anselm took the opportunity to retreat, attention fixed on the master builder. “You shan’t get far,” he promised to the tune of his brothers’ growing shouts. The four remained frozen to the spot under the millstone of sin’s accountability, but it was Anselm himself who fell victim to his own vow when a shadow reared up and seized him from behind, shocking Meinon as much as it did the monk, who jolted in fear of some weapon unseen. A dark band was struck across his mouth and his torch wrenched away, falling to the grass verge at the porch’s edge.
“No more words, brother,” Griff said. “We aren’t bringing any danger to you. Now hush.” He dragged Anselm away from the door towards the hedge across the northern path, at which the stunned Ioab advanced, and Meinon followed suit after a shove from Leuchu, partially relieved that Griff had not stabbed the monk but unsure as to whether a knife had been used in any case.
Tentative were his steps across the exposed pathway and approaching the restrained monk half-submerged in the hedge, whose own alarmed guise was aggravated for the black glove that hid half of it and the furious mumbling seeping through beneath. “Gag him. No possessions of the Lord have been taken, Brother Anselm, only from your king. We do not rob from you or the Church.”
Leuchu stormed to Meinon’s side. “This isn’t the time for defence before a prosecution!”
Ducking closer into the hedge’s shadow that provided paltry concealment at best, Meinon knew it faintly ludicrous to explain as he had, but who could fight compulsion when God demanded answers? “Get him through the hedge. We can’t wait around here.”
“We can’t kidnap a priest!” Maredudd rumbled alongside similar hushed protest from Leuchu. A withering glare from Meinon’s grey eyes suppressed the burly man’s continued dissent, and realising the extent of this escapade Anselm edged out a few words as Griff and Ioab tied more cloth about his mouth.
“You Welsh cannot do-”
“Be rid of that torch! Cannot leave it for anyone to find,” Meinon commanded. Disregarding the storied complaints he crouched back into the tearing branches eager to feed once more on the loose wool, his shoulders hunched over in covetous protection of that prize more valuable than any kingdom. Hurriedly the other five – one more unwillingly than the other four – shuffled through in his wake and under an ensemble of curses, all quieter than the uproar of panic and orders from the south.
He spoke again. “The horses?”
“Where you commanded, oh commander,” Leuchu replied. Into the woods they went, taking a prepared route that the monks most certainly would not. Glastonbury was a place of power, everyone knew that. Each root tried to trip them, each branch tore at their clothes, and the breeze itself whispered doubts into Meinon’s ears over whether he had even collected the right caskets. Were they decoys? Were there bones within? Undoubtedly some things clanked around within the casket he carried in jarring discomfort. He could trust purely in what he had achieved. No man could do more.
Travails indeed marked their flight under the low, leafless branches of the woods, although Brother Anselm at least turned the other cheek in mere passive resistance to being herded through that lightless labyrinth. Leuchu had hobbled the horses in a small outhouse between the second and third dykes that alongside streams and roads radiated out in a zodiacal pattern from the Tor on the hill; eager were the Welsh to leave the boundary of this sacred geography at the soonest, to free themselves of immediate physical reminders of their unholy work. They were far enough into the country to safely light torches, and the wagon was wheeled out and the chest and caskets carefully loaded in amongst the baskets of cloths that would give them disguise as itinerant merchants until they reached the Severn, and Meinon prompted for Griff to help Brother Anselm up onto it afterwards. Glancing up to the east he glimpsed through quivering branches a light from the Tor’s peak and shivered, the embodiment of God’s own eye watching their actions with long centuries’ worth of cold judgement.
Anselm resumed his mumbled defiance and Maredudd joined in the questioning. “On the wagon as well?”
“How troubled are your convictions,” was Meinon’s accusation to provoke momentary indignation. “You want to leave him here, to walk back and have the alarm raised before sunup? We will take him five miles, maybe ten, until we’re far enough that he’ll only have the sound of bells from four villages along to guide him back.” The master builder turned to his prisoner and addressed him in English. “You’ve no part in the wars of men, Brother Anselm, but we do.”
“Mmmph, mmm-mmph. Mmm mmmph,” Anselm said.
“I know,” was Meinon’s weary reply, and Griff nudged the monk onto the wagon’s step.
Meinon, Leuchu and Ioab made for the horses but Maredudd lingered discontented, not without Ioab’s notice. “Leuchu hasn’t used her knife yet, Duff,” Ioab joked. “Don’t tempt her.”
“All England will hear of this,” Big Duff muttered devoid of humour.
With foreboding Meinon noticed the delay and sighed. “We don’t harm monks and holy men. And we don’t harm our friends, either. Come.”
But Maredudd remained rooted. In the torchlight Meinon glanced and nodded to Griff, who in turn began to bind the wide-eyed Anselm’s hands to the wagon, and Ioab and Leuchu stepped carefully out to either side of the vehicle. “The Dragons have higher expectations than we do, Duff,” Leuchu reminded him.
“We’ll all go together,” Ioab continued.
Finally a sad glaze befell the grey eyes of Meinon the master builder, who slowly approached his old friend. Entire worlds separated the notion of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar vanishing into the night under God’s assent and the discovery of opportunistic Welsh builders robbing a tomb to dishonourably further their movement’s cause. “The best we can offer is tying you to a tree until someone walks past to free you,” he explained, looking left and right to either end of the clearing they there occupied. “That might give us as much time as taking Anselm with us.”
Griff had finished with his task and stood high on the wagon, still wearing a habit in imitation of the Benedictine brothers of Glastonbury, surveying the developing standoff; himself assessing the circumstances, it was now the turn of Maredudd’s shoulders to rise and fall with disinclination. “The King didn’t go lightly to Afallon,” he spoke in the gentlest of sonorous intonation.
“And it’s not lightly that the Britons bring him back,” Meinon responded, slowly and conspicuously reaching for the hammer at his belt. Leuchu and Ioab acted in kind to either side, the one unsheathing a dirk and the other brandishing his own hammer. And none of their number took Maredudd’s size lightly.
Big Duff calmly shook his head but did not react to the preparations of his comrades. “It’s not for living men to decide when the dead can rise again.”
“God’s guided us this far,” Meinon ventured through a heavy veil of scepticism.
“God’s spoken this evening, aye,” the big man replied, at last rolling his shoulders. The long hammer hanging from his belt swayed with the movement. “It’s never too late to listen.”
Meinon gritted his teeth. Damn those Dragons. Desperately he did not want to fight his friend. “Once opened, some doors can’t be closed.”
“We’re builders,” Maredudd said simply. “We can build new ones.” And then he threw himself right at Ioab, tackling the smaller man to the ground through a mighty shoulder check before he could bring up the hammer in defence or attack. With impetus Big Duff circled around to Meinon who bemusedly swung down his hammer – never having wielded it against another man before, and not really trying to hit him – somehow finding the longer haft of Maredudd’s own that he had deftly revealed at the last moment. The two rang out like they were clashing swords, and in the fortune of his miraculous defence it was the larger man who carried the momentum to floor Meinon through a punch to the gut with his free hand.
Maredudd then jolted about as Griff hooked a rope around his neck, dragging him down, but Duff was far stronger and resisted manfully to pull back and wrestle his wily friend. Gasping for air and stumbling to his feet, Meinon saw Maredudd grappling with Griff as Leuchu hovered nearby, no match for the two men despite the blade she held. The briefest glimpse of her expression showed her to bear no inclination to use it. Neither did Meinon want to cause injury, and for want of any better ideas threw himself at Maredudd’s legs to topple the bigger man, Griff falling on top of him still bound by strong arms seeking to squeeze him to submission. From the darkness Ioab jumped on, no less blind for it, and between the four none could tell who held who and to what purpose.
None at first heard Leuchu’s brief cry either, since Anselm had slipped his shoddy bindings to the wagon to shoulder the small woman square in the back and send her flying, thereafter setting off into the woods half-entangled in rope. Her knife dropped unseen, Leuchu leaped up and set after him, furious and refocused upon a target that she might do something about, and in no time she was closing down on him.
Meinon was first to notice their flight. “Anselm!” he grunted in the ruck, hardly able to speak for Maredudd’s struggling, “he can’t… he can’t get away!”
Maredudd himself slowed at the realisation – conflicted as he was – allowing Griff to roll away and stagger to his feet just as a weighty thud issued past the trees in the direction of Anselm’s escape that sent an animal or two scurrying in disturbance. Instinct bade all four to pause then; of grave matters the still of night told no lies, and Leuchu came stalking back and nearly tripped over a tree root, hurried in her pace, fright emanating from her obscured face.
“Where is he?” Meinon demanded. “You let him get away?”
“He’s dead,” she blurted.
“I had to stop him somehow, I caught him and shoved him, and he fell, and he’s dead.”
“What do you mean, he fell and he’s dead?”
“I shoved him and he hit his head on something, and he won’t get up,” Leuchu snapped.
“How can he be-”
“I wouldn’t be here saying this otherwise, would I?”
Quiet fell. Meinon felt immediately hollowed out. Her revelation numbed him more than could any theft from the holiest abbey. Ioab, Griff and Maredudd gave no reaction and all that could be heard was the catching of breath.
That was until Maredudd spoke. “Murderer.”
Leuchu glared at him, not for the accusation but for reminding him of what had happened.
“You’ve murdered a monk to rob a grave.”
“We’re leaving,” Meinon stated.
All turned to him. “Murderers,” Maredudd stressed.
None moved. “Let’s go,” the master builder repeated. So many lines had been crossed in a single evening. He did not know what else was required of him.
Griff went to the wagon and Ioab to Leuchu, grasping his transfixed wife about her slender shoulders, coaxing her from her torpor. “Come, Duff,” appealed Meinon.
“You will leave him dead in the woods?”
Meinon faced him down – not one could see the other’s expression, and they did not need to – before turning, his soul aching in mounting the wagon. There was no going back from this point. “He will need burial.”
Ioab and Leuchu clambered aboard and then Griff. The quintet went as husks devoid of their earlier energy, spirits flattened.
“As is Christian,” Duff told him, the richness of his voice fitting for mournful times. Every niche of the woods was filled with it and none more so than the cavity since bored into Meinon’s heart. “Give my regards to our countrymen.” The master builder cracked the reins and drove the wagon away westward, away from the dawn and the end it promised to this deteriorating reverie. What cost this prize?