Next Steps

 

1524 AD

St Mary’s Abbey

England

Oliver ducked down behind the bushes. “If we’re caught, Gareth, do you think the monks will hand us over to the local sheriff?”

“No.” Gareth laughed. “Have you seen the size of the monks? They’d be more likely to skin us alive, eat us and wash us down with a tankard of mead.”

“You shouldn’t make fun with such sordid goings-on. There are many stories of those who have gone into the abbey and were never seen again.”

“Oliver, you must get over your fear of the unknown. If Robin Hood knew of your nervousness, he’d never let you run with his band of men or go on missions like this.”

“I’m not really scared; I was just pretending—”

“We both know you weren’t pretending. Just for a moment, consider our ages—we’re fourteen years. That doesn’t make us the most dangerous criminals in the land.”

“Perhaps not, but if we get caught, we’ll be seen as criminals none the less.”

“Oh dear, have you been listening to the friar, Tuck?” Gareth laughed. “He tells his tales around the campfire to frighten youngsters like us and amuse the older outlaws.”

“It doesn’t amuse Will Scarlett—I’ve seen him bite his lip and fidget when Tuck relates his tales of things that happen in the abbey.”

“Will Scarlett is only sixteen years—he’s two years older than us but likes to pretend he’s older and tougher. He nearly shit in his leggings the night that the maid, Marian, came calling on her white horse.”

“He’s not the only one,” Oliver said. “We believed it was a talking horse.”

“It was so funny.”

“We could only see the horse appearing out of the mist when we heard the voice, and then, of course, there was Marian riding in all dressed in dark colours.”

Gareth shook his head as he recalled the event. “She whispered something about a meal for a hungry lady, and it looked like it was the horse talking. You and Will Scarlett have over-active imaginations.”

“Gareth, it looked like the White Lady of Loughborough, and you know she was the spirit of—”

“There you go again—the spirit of the forest—another tale told by Tuck. Isn’t the lady supposed to have been burned at the stake as a witch?”

“She was supposed to be, but the soldiers never got her to the castle for a trial.”

“I’m sure Tuck said she was executed—”

“No, she wasn’t. The soldiers stopped at a local abbey during the journey, and the lady disappeared. Tuck said that he’d seen the story written in the history books in the abbey.”

“I’ll go along with that version if it makes you happy—which abbey did she disappear in?”

Oliver nodded towards the massive complex of buildings not far away. “St Mary’s—the one we’re about to enter on our mission.” He swallowed. “Tuck said that there was a bright white doorway somewhere in the abbey, near the cloisters.”

“Oliver, we can see the cloisters from here. Look to the right of the main building, where there is a long line of archways—that’s the cloisters. One side, you’d be able to look out towards the fields and this forest, and the other direction, you’d probably be looking in towards the gardens.”

“The white light isn’t one of the arches, Gareth; it’s a sort of glowing white doorway. According to the legend, the soldiers saw the lady look back and then run into the light, and she was never seen again.”

“And you’re telling me that none of the soldiers went after her?”

“No, and I wouldn’t have gone after her either—she disappeared.”

“Okay, calm down, Oliver, and I’ll make a deal with you. If we see a glowing white doorway anywhere near the cloisters, we’ll avoid it.”

“Thank you, Gareth.”

“If we don’t get going, it’ll be dusk, and we’ll have difficulty seeing the abbey, let alone sneaking in. We’ll have a drink before we go, and then we need to move along the hedgerows and the stream.”

Both boys gulped water from their leather pouches and then set off under cover of nearby bushes.

*

The adventurers climbed up from the stream onto the embankment only one hundred yards from the abbey buildings’ south side.

Oliver pointed towards the line of arches. “They look like dark spirits.” Pairs and groups of figures walked solemnly in the gardens within the massive complex. Their cassock hoods were raised and pulled forward slightly so no faces could be seen—only dark shadows.

“They look like dark spirits because there are so few torches lit around the inner sanctum.” Gareth gripped his friend’s arm. “Come on, and don’t speak again unless you see where the cassocks are hanging up.” He glanced over his shoulders into the darkness.

“How many do we need?”

“Oliver has fear erased your memory? We have to liberate two cassocks and get back to the hideout before last light, or else we’re going back to live in the village like ordinary lads. We’ll be made to do chores—woman’s work—is that what you want?”

“No, I want to be one of Robin’s men.”

“Right, so cut out the anxiety and the whimpering and get this done.”

They crept through the field of crops nearest to the abbey and then ran along the edge of a large garden. It seemed that the monks grew a wide variety of vegetables, and they had the reputation of producing the finest mead in the area. Perhaps all the praying and strict vows of silence were repaid by good crop yields and the plentiful production of strong ale.

When the boys reached the cloisters, they heard an eerie humming or chanting. They turned to face each other, and finally, Gareth’s wide-eyed expression was proof that he wasn’t as brave as he pretended to be. He swallowed, and the sound could have been heard several feet away.

Oliver looked one way and the other, realising that it was now or never.

Gareth brought forward both hands and cupped them together for his friend to use as a step.

Oliver shook his head and pointed to Gareth.

Gareth shook his head slowly, once again pretending to be taking the unknown in his stride. “Okay,” he whispered and stepped away from the wall below the nearest arch to face Oliver. When Oliver cupped his hands, it took two paces and a single step for Gareth to leap up and grip the lower edge of the arch. After scrabbling with his feet for a few seconds, he held firm and was able to climb over. He bent over the wall and reached down to grip Oliver’s hand.

Two minutes later, the boys were creeping along between the archways. To one side was the darkness of the countryside that they’d just left behind, and to the other side were the inner gardens and neat stone pathways between the buildings of the abbey.

Gareth pointed to the right, and the pair crept along the line of open arches towards one end. They paused in the areas where there was the least light. At a junction, the boys turned right, not sure where they were going. Flaming torches offered small areas of flickering light at regular intervals along the next stone corridor.

In the darkness, a voice whispered, “The unknown can steal a man’s bravery.”

Gareth paused in the shadows between torches and whispered, “Oliver, I know you’re trying to make me scared, but I’m not, so cut out the haunting voice.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Oliver whispered with a tremor in his voice.

Another whisper broke the silence in the darkness. “Fear can create confusion.”

Gareth gasped and stood upright, hitting his head against the base of a torch bracket. He jumped aside as the flaming torch fell. It landed with a clatter, and burning oil splashed across the cobbled floor, illuminating the two boys.

A deep voice growled from along the corridor. “Go no farther.”

“Someone has seen us, Oliver,” Gareth panted. “I told you not to do that. But did you listen? What the hell are we going to do now?”

“It wasn’t me. I didn’t do it,” he shouted back. “I haven’t said a word.”

“Who are you?” The voice was deep and was now accompanied by loud footsteps. A large flapping shape was moving at speed along the corridor, creating shadows as it passed the flickering lights.

“Run,” Gareth gasped and set off, rapidly followed by a terrified Oliver. They reached a junction of three corridors that all looked the same, but the sound of approaching footsteps helped them decide. Off they went again, running fast and breathing hard. At another junction, they were in a quandary once again when each corridor looked the same.

A low chant sounded from one of the corridors, but it was several voices, and the endless echoes were unearthly.

“This way.” Gareth set off, still no wiser as to where he was going.

“Stop,” Oliver gasped. “We just passed the passageway to the cloisters.”

The pair went back a few paces and turned along what appeared to be a familiar corridor. They felt some relief until a group of shapes appeared, coming towards them from the other end of the open arches.

Oliver said, “Let’s jump through an arch.”

“No. We can’t see what’s below, and if we land on rocks, we could get hurt—and probably caught.”

The chanting got louder and now seemed to be coming from two different directions.

“There,” Oliver said. “Along there is a door. We could hide inside for a while.”

“Okay, come on.”

They reached the door, and as Gareth pulled it open, light from within blinded them both.

Oliver raised an arm to cover his eyes. “What—”

A deep voice behind them called out, “We have them, brothers.” The chanting got louder.

“Come on.” Gareth gripped his friend’s sleeve and ran into the light. The two boys managed three steps before they heard the heavy wooden door slam closed behind them. The light disappeared, but both boys were still blinded and stood still.

As the minutes passed, the teenagers remained on the same spot, clinging to each other and staring into pitch darkness.

“Gareth, I’m scared.”

“For once, Oliver, I’ll admit I am too, but whatever we do, we’ll do it together.” He paused. “Hold onto my arm. I’m going to kneel down to find out what the floor feels like.”

“Why, what difference does it make?”

“If we kneel down, we can crawl to see if we’re in a storage chamber of some sort.”

“I don’t think we’re in a storage chamber.”

“Why not?”

“If we were in an enclosed space, one of those monks would open the door to pull us out.”

“Well, why haven’t they?” Gareth was no longer the confident one.

“I don’t know why they didn’t follow us, but there must be a good reason.”

“Oliver, can you see that shape ahead … it looks like a door?”

“It can’t be the one we entered through because we haven’t turned around.”

“Let’s try it and see where it leads.”

“First of all, we should do what you said and kneel down to feel the floor—there might be a big hole between us and that door shape.”

“Let’s do it together.”

The pair got down onto the floor to find that it was cobbled, like the corridors. While on all-fours, they moved forward, keeping close together in the darkness. When their heads touched the large wooden door, they were happy not to have fallen down a hole. They helped each other to their feet and stood close to the door.

“What do we do now?” Gareth whispered, finally having lost his sense of adventure.

“Our next steps are going to be important, whatever we do,” Oliver said. “We could turn and go back through the other door if they haven’t locked it, but I don’t really want to do that.”

“We can’t just stay here in the darkness.”

Oliver said, “I know.” With confidence, he had never known before, he said, “I think we should try this door. If it opens, we go through to whatever awaits us.” He felt for a handle, turned it and pushed.

*

The two youngsters found themselves standing in a long stone corridor with a cobbled floor. It felt vaguely familiar.

“This way,” Gareth said and set off, no wiser as to where he was going.

“Stop,” Oliver gasped. “We just passed the passageway to the cloisters.”

The pair went back a few paces and turned along what looked like a corridor. They felt some relief until a group of shapes appeared, coming towards them from the other end of the open arches.

Oliver said, “Let’s jump through an arch.”

“No. We don’t know which ones are above grass or rocks—we’ll be caught if we get hurt.”

The chanting got louder and now seemed to be coming from two different directions.

“There,” Oliver said. “Along, there is a door. We could hide inside for a while.”

“Okay, come on.”

They reached the door, and as Gareth pulled it open, a light from within blinded them both.

Oliver raised an arm to cover his eyes. “What—”

A deep voice behind them called out, “We have them, brothers.” The chanting got louder.

“Come on.” Gareth gripped his friend’s sleeve and ran into the light. The two boys managed three steps before they heard the heavy wooden door slam closed behind them. As the door closed, the light disappeared, but both boys were still blinded and stood still.

As the minutes passed, the teenagers remained in the same spot, clinging to each other and staring into pitch darkness.

“Gareth, I’m scared … this is a repeat of what happened to us.”

“No, it’s your imagination … Oliver … sometimes we think we’ve done something … before.”

“You know I’m right. There’s something strange going on.”

“Okay, why don’t we go ahead and see if there’s a door ahead of us?”

“Just remember, we both know we’ve done this before.”

“Come on, before they come in looking for us.”

They crawled forward through the darkness, and sure enough, there was a door.

“I opened it last time,” Gareth said. “You do it this time.”

Oliver took a deep breath, gripped the handle, turned and pushed.

*

Once again, they found themselves standing in a long stone corridor with a cobbled floor.

“This way—” Gareth was held back by Oliver gripping his sleeve.

“No,” Oliver said. “We’ve been caught in a curse of some sort. I say we stand our ground and face—”

Dark shapes came from both directions. One of the monks within each group carried a flaming torch. This caused all the monks at the front to look like flickering shadows as if their habits and large hoods contained nothing.

A deep voice said, “We have them now, brothers.”

“We beg your forgiveness, holy fathers,” Oliver said. “We trespassed on a fool’s errand.”

From within the darkness of the nearest cassock hood, the voice said, “Tell us of this errand.”

“We came to borrow two cassocks from this holy place to prove ourselves worthy.”

“Theft from a holy place does not sound like something to make a person worthy.”

Gareth took heart at his friend’s efforts. “We would have taken them only to prove that we dared, and then they would be returned soon after.”

“And how would you propose to return such items without raising suspicion?”

“We know a fr—”

Oliver interrupted. “We would give them to a holy man who often passes this way.”

“You would have us believe that you were intent on taking robes, only to have them brought back—and to what end?”

Gareth said, “We desire to join a band of men who take from the rich and give to the poor, but we must prove our courage.”

“And you believe it is courageous to steal from a place such as this?”

“No, holy father, the courage stems from a time such as this—if we were caught. We must be prepared to face punishment for our transgression.”

“Can you enlighten us as to who leads this band of … outlaws who take from rich people to give to those less fortunate?”

“Alas, it is a matter of honour that we do not divulge a name, holy father.”

“I see, so you come to our holy place in stealth, to steal from us, only to return the items … and yet you talk of honour among thieves. This is an interesting theory, young man.”

For a few seconds, nothing more was said, but the two crowds of dark shapes moved forward to close in on the two terrified youngsters.

The dark spokesman closest to the captives stepped within touching distance. “Do you both accept that the premise of stealing is wrong, even if you intended to return the items?”

“Yes, holy father,” the pair chorused.

“Do you both accept the penalty for such an act?”

“Yes,” they murmured.

From both sides of the boys, monks approached and held out bundles.

“Take these,” the leader said. “Take them, but you must never talk of what has taken place here.”

The boys accepted the large robes and then stood motionless.

The lead monk said, “Now, go and jump from the nearest arch in the cloisters.”

The two boys stared silently at the dark shadows within the hood.

“Do it!” roared the big faceless monk.

Gareth and Oliver grabbed a bundle apiece and ran towards the cloisters, hearing a loud chant from behind them. They arrived at the first arch and leapt into the darkness beyond, but it was only a short drop, and they landed on thick grass and undergrowth. When they got to their feet, they gathered up the bundles they’d been given and ran to the forest. For thirty minutes, they ran without pausing to talk, but they both tired and slowed to a walk. A few minutes later, they were cold and tired, so they stopped, and without discussion, wrapped themselves in the heavy material to rest.

*

“Here they come,” Robin Hood said and laughed heartily. “Our young associates arrive from the night bearing gifts.”

Gareth stepped forward to the group at the breakfast campfire and addressed the leader. “We ventured, as the legend suggests, to take from the holy men, but with the wish that the items were returned.”

Robin nodded. “Gareth tells us what you’ve done, Oliver, but you, pray tell us if you were caught?”

“No,” Oliver said. “We performed the task and returned unhindered.”

“Why then has it taken all night?”

“We wanted to prove our worthiness by sleeping with our prize in an area betwixt here and where the holy men live and work.”

“Well done, and now you will leave the cassocks aside and have breakfast. The friar, Tuck, will return the cassocks but give no mention of where he has obtained them.”

The band of outlaws cheered and slapped their young friends on the back.

Robin smiled as he looked around at the nods of acknowledgement. Every member of his gang had gone through the ritual, but it was never admitted or discussed.

The time warp spell had only ever been discussed by two people—Robin, and the friar, Tuck. They’d talked of it on one occasion when Robin had explained that it would be an initiation task for any member of his band. Tuck suspected that he knew the person who cast the time warp spell but was unable to drag the secret from Robin.

The maid, Marian, was a beautiful, mysterious woman who exuded a hidden strength that no man questioned. She had suggested to Robin in private—any man who entered the abbey in the darkness and returned with a cassock could be trusted. It was her idea that any cassock borrowed should be replaced by Tuck.

Marian never admitted to being the white witch.

***

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