Chapter 17: Abbess
Chapter 17 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 in the Light-Father Trilogy
Chapter 17: Abbess
Surl awoke in the pitch black dark and no matter how she tossed and turned on her uncomfortable bed she could not find sleep again. There had been no dream or vision so she felt truly blind for the first time in her short life but she felt no fear only a curiosity about her powers and a fleeting hope that she was somehow becoming ‘normal’. The cellar was quiet apart from the waters gushing past the access door, rats skittering in stonework and the gentle snoring of the others with Pup mumbling the word ‘cake’ every so often.
Despite her age, she had been honed by years of remorseless training and instruction by Mother Moss so she found her machete by touch and only then did she turn on the lantern and set it to emit a dim glow. She felt a sudden and overwhelming need to do her toilet and realised that they had given this little thought so she sheathed her weapon and padded upstairs to the store-room where, to her delight, there was a bucket which she used gratefully.
She tore strips from some linen sheets to wipe herself clean and recalled peeing on Amos’s shoes six years ago as they hid in an inspection chamber from the Order. Their parents and older brother and sister were being tortured and butchered so she sobbed briefly in the dark, recalling how she knew they were dead and picking flowers for them to lay beside their blood-soaked bodies.
Then there was the darkness of the garage at their grandparents’ house and how the elderly couple had refused to house them for fear of the Plague. The Feral, Ruff-ruff, came to mind and how she felt her grandparents dying and the arrival of Mother Moss. She ground her teeth with a new resolve: the Order would pay for all their crimes; every last stinking one of them!
Mindful of the rats getting at their food, she found a large pot with a lid and carried that, strips of linen, the bucket and the lantern downstairs with great difficulty. She opened the sewer access door and tipped the bucket contents into the water racing past with the runoff from the torrential rain still falling above ground.
She was able to swill the bucket out as the water was almost level with the sewer walkway and she wondered how it was so high yet the cellar did not flood then she remembered the overflow tunnel Ignatius had told her about. The water appeared clean so she breathed a sigh of relief and washed her hands returned before returning to the cellar to store the food away.
She sat on her makeshift bed and listened to all the sounds about her: the water, the others breathing and a faint sound of the Great Bell ringing six times calling the Order to Matins. She closed her eyes and crossed her legs – as Mother Moss had often taught her to do – and let her mind drift upon the sounds. She opened her eyes suddenly as she could clearly hear wailing and lamentation echoing down the stairs: a sound that set her heart leaping with fear.
She took the lantern and with her machete drawn, she warily ascended the stairs and tiptoed up to the door leading into the corridor. She was glad Peter had propped the door shut as there was a lot of activity on the other side of it. A caterwauling was issuing from at least three female throats and she presumed that they were lamenting the dead Sisters in the kitchen. There were other voices; frantic and disjointed:
“So many Sisters are dead!”
“Oh! There is blood everywhere!”
“How can we prepare food with their bodies lying there?”
“Why did the Tally-men kill so many of us?”
“Can the Abbess do something about this? We can’t leave them in the kitchen lying on the floor like that!”
“Many greenhouse panes have been broken by the hail and most of the crops are ruined. What shall we do?”
“There were fires and explosions all night!”
“What has happened to the electrics?”
“They got into Magdalene House and not one Sister survived!”
“And into Saint Mary’s: they were murdered in their beds!”
“And Saint Catherine’s. All dead!”
“So only the Abbess Manse and our House were spared?”
“Oh, so many dead! So many dead! So many dead!”
“What will become of us?”
“I don’t know. Oh, Abbess! Bless you: you survived!”
The tumult in the corridor subsided and another female voice spoke only with the authority and intelligence demonstrably lacking in the others: “Sisters, I have been to all the houses in the Enclave and I am afraid only those of you in Saint Agnes House and in my Manse were spared this desecration. The Fathers tell me that the Wiccans and their cohorts attacked the Great Abbey yesterday and they somehow bewitched the Tally-Men.”
“We saw the invaders by the Eastern Processional after we had delivered food the Fathers’ Lodge. The beast-children came at us but they were only interested in fighting the Brothers.”
“Oh, oh, how could the Fathers let the Harlots of Satan do this?”
“What about Matins?”
The Abbess spoke curtly in a raised voice: “Stop babbling! We will not observe Matins this day and we will gather at my Manse for Compline as there are now but three dozen of us left alive.”
Exclamations of horror and weeping resumed then a chant of lamentation by several sisters began but the Abbess silenced them: “Enough! We are Sisters of the Order and we have much to do! Sisters Anna and Fria: you lay sheets upon our departed sisters in the kitchens. The rains have eased so Sisters Audrey and Darlene: take bread and cheese to the postulants and novices…”
Surl listened intently and began to gain a picture of the losses sustained by the Order and how few Brothers, Sisters and Fathers remained alive in the Great Abbey. She peered through the door crack on hearing heavy footfalls in the corridor but the table banged suddenly against the wall and door startling her greatly and making her gasp in fright. Tally-men were lumbering past into the kitchen with stretchers to begin the removal the dead Sisters. Many of the Sisters clamoured in fear at the sight of the Tally-men with a few becoming hysterical until the Abbess silenced them; slapping several across the face when they were beyond words.
The Abbess continued issuing instructions until all the Sisters were despatched but one thing that struck Surl was the rapid change of mood of the Sisters from caterwauling and moaning in despair to singing psalms in clear bright voices as they were set about their tasks. It was as if some switch had been thrown in their heads. She could hear the blood being mopped from the floor in the kitchen and food despatched across the Great Abbey as it stirred into a shattered semblance of its former life.
The corridor fell silent for several minutes and Surl was about to return when she realised the candles in the corridor had been extinguished yet dawn had only just begun. She immediately switched off the lantern but it was too late:
“I know you are there, child,” the Abbess said. It was obvious to Surl that she was sitting on the corridor table and talking quietly through the crack in the door wood so that the Sisters in the kitchen could not hear her speaking: “I heard you gasp and beheld your lamplight through this split in the door.”
Surl cursed herself but held her tongue and waited in an agony of suspense during several minutes of absolute silence.
“So be it, child,” the Abbess sighed heavily. “I would have loved to hear the sweet voice of a child again to fill the emptiness in both womb and heart. I saw four of you emerge from the bell tower despite the pall of smoke so I presume you were left behind after your so-called Light-Father retreated. Let me now bear my soul to thee: I had no part in the genocide wrought upon the world. I did sense a foul shadow growing in the Great Abbey for years before the Plague but after the Plague, it got worse until I could not bear to be near the Great Annex such was the malice I felt emanating through its walls.”
The Abbess fell silent for a minute. “I could put no words to this intangible malice but I could feel that same malign presence in the exegesis corrupting the sermons and shrouding the pulpits. Thus when the monstrous Seven-Headed Lamb was found, the Order sent forth the Virus without question. Like yours, my relatives fell to the Plague and my faith was tested and found wanting.”
She laughed bitterly: “How I am brought low: confessing my sins to a Child of Exodus through a crack in a door – a poor excuse for a confessional. Forgive me for I have sinned, dear heart, and I remain trapped here out of a sense of duty to my precious, helpless Sisters; my little flock.”
The door creaked as the Abbess gently leant her back against it. “You may not believe me, dear heart, I now know and despise the fact that my Sisters were genetically bred to be mere brood mares in the Conclave’s New Jerusalem. I was told, even after the Plague, that the Order had provided sanctuary for all these innocent yet simple-minded women who would otherwise be preyed upon. Ach! Fool that I am: I did not realise how corrupt and misogynistic the machinations of the Order were.”
There was another pause and Surl could not move as she was mesmerised. “Then the Tally-men appeared and my Sisters quailed at the screams from beneath the Great Manse and the thin young men in chains they saw being led into the Redemption Cells as they now called them. I saw them with those Guides driven into their skulls to become slaves without conscience. I care not if the Wiccans turned them upon us or not: it was no more than we deserved for destroying their minds and stealing their souls…”
The Abbess faltered and stifled several choking sobs: “With the world gone, I remained and countenanced such unspeakable horror. I closeted myself in my Manse – like Brother Ignatius in his tower – seeing to my precious Sisters and keeping them chaste and safe from the grasping lust of both novice and postulant.”
There came another pause as the Abbess collected herself: “Ah, still listening I see,” she chuckled. “I can almost hear your heart beating but fear not: I will not harm thee but heed my words: flee the madness that ensnares me but be wary of the Wiccans for I fear their powers. They are not of God and may lead thee astray onto even darker paths. I think we will meet again before all is done but I fear I must leave you now and tend to my poor brood mares. Fare thee well, Child of Exodus. Pray for me and wish Brother Ignatius kali uyeia when you see him next.”
Her slow footsteps faded leaving Surl bewildered and panting heavily in the utter darkness of the store-room. She slapped herself hard in the face several times. “Stupid, stupid, stupid Surl!” she muttered angrily then, her heart heavy with shame and fear, she returned to the cellar to find Peter had lit one of the candles.
“Ah, good morrow, fair maid,” Peter smiled, bowing gallantly.
“There is nothing good about the day nor am I a fair maid.”
Peter looked crestfallen at her tone: “What’s wrong? I was only trying to cheer you up,” he pouted.
After she had told him everything she’d overheard, he thought for a moment then shrugged: “If this Abbess was going to raise the alarm, Surl, she would have done it straight away not waited until there was nobody in the corridor and then confessed to you! She hates the Order for having killed her family and she feels she has nowhere to go and is trying to look after the Sisters.”
“Yes. I also found out that so few Brothers and Sisters remain alive but I made that stupid mistake with the lantern: if my brother was here, you can imagine what he would say to me!”
“The Sisters are as brainless as sheep so you could not know that they had a wolf as a shepherdess but this is good news: we can stay here in the cellar until we escape! Besides,” he grinned. “Amos is a big bull-pat with no compassion. He treated you and Fria badly in Crawcester especially in that shop so stop being a worry-wart – maybe she will help us like Ignatius. She seemed to know he was here but how did she know that?”
“Oh, she must know about the wine down here and how Ignatius gets his drink,” Surl said thoughtfully. “Having two people who know about us is not good but we have no choice but to trust them because, if they were to betray us, they would have done so and we would all be dead by now.”
“Then stop belittling yourself, Surl,” Peter said stoutly. “We still live thanks to you and your visions and we can get revenge before we make our escape down the overflow tunnel.”
Surl shook her head sadly. “My visions have stopped. I cannot foresee what we must do next or how to avoid capture. The sun is almost up and we must try to sabotage something after breakfast with or without my visions.” She pointed at Rabbit and Surl who were starting to wake up and yawning hugely. “Let’s get some breakfast ready for the little ones first.”
She opened up the jar as Peter set plates out for them. She buttered hunks of bread for them all and cut the cheese and dried meats into slices with one of their more serrated knives.
Peter put a piece of linen over his stump and stood by Rabbit and Pup as they wiped the sleep out of their eyes. “Good morrow, sir and madam,” he said, imitating a waiter Saul had described to them when his family had once dined in an expensive restaurant in Crawcester. “Your table awaits and we have quite the breakfast menu: bread and cheese, bread and dried meat, cheese and dried meat or bread and bread with some water to wash it down.”
“Pup is confused,” Pup said blearily. “Did you hit your head?”
“He’s pretending this is a restaurant and we are the guests,” Rabbit yawned. “I would rather a blow to the head, to be honest.”
“Tch! Such ungrateful guests! Chef will be upset!”
Surl laughed, grateful for the distraction. “Play along, you two, otherwise he will sulk and complain about his stump for hours.”
With martyred expressions, they allowed themselves to be shown to the table by Peter who readied the chairs for them and tucked in strips of linen to serve as bibs. He so enjoyed the role that Pup and Rabbit eventually entered into the spirit of the charade ordering venison and champagne for their evening meals. Suddenly, there was a scraping outside the sewer access door followed by six rapid knocks but before the first knock all four children had their weapons at the ready.
Surl gingerly opened the cellar door but Ignatius was long gone. In the dim light of the lantern she beheld on the walkway a thermos flask, a jug of fresh milk and two rolled up parchments tied with string. She opened the thermos cap slowly and sniffed the contents. “Hot tea!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening. “Quickly, Rabbit, light two more candles and bring those cups to the table.”
As Rabbit complied, Peter unrolled the two parchments. He examined them with the lantern and smiled: “We don’t need your visions now, Surl: this one is a plan of the Great Abbey and the other is a map of the sewer system beneath it. Look: Ignatius has written exactly where and when we need to strike!”
Surl gazed at the parchments and saw that Ignatius had marked out the access routes to fuel stores, the generator room, the former laboratories where the begiullers were made, the Angel hangars, The Great Manse and the Great Annex. “Bless Ignatius: we have a chance,” she sighed with relief. “We can stop the Order from hunting the Light-Father and the others.”
Pup paused from slurping at his hot tea. “Does that mean we are not going to die?” he asked brightly. “Are we really going to finish the Tales of Pup the Mighty and his Catapult of Justice?”
Despite her heavy heart, Surl nodded: “Yes, we will live to tell the saga of Pup the Mighty but finish your food first: we can’t bring down the Order on an empty stomach!”
Surl yawned and snuggled into Harold’s chest again pinning him to the sofa. “She’s solid for such a young girl,” he muttered ruefully. Her machete was still in its sheath and he had to move it as the hilt was digging into his shoulder. He noticed with mild surprise that his katana was also making its presence felt and it made him realise how quickly it had became automatic for him to keep a weapon to hand. In the candle-light, he could see how all four children were the same. Rabbit was between him and Fern on the sofa and leant against Fern with a contented smile on her face yet she had two of her lethal hand-axes in her hands.
Peter had paused in his tale to sit in one of the arm chairs and finish a second bowl of broth Shield had brought him. As he drank the broth, Harold saw how he was hampered by the knife attached to his stump and the naked blade on the armrest.
Pup was gently snoring on the other side of Fern with a drawn knife still in his hand. Harold clearly saw Fern’s maternal love for both children as she held them close to her: a small pool of love in their nightmarish, dystopian childhoods.
“I hear your thoughts, dear heart,” she said candidly. “I too wish to grant these poor children a peaceful life.”
He was about to reprimand her for reading his thoughts but his ire dissolved in the deep love he had for this beautiful witch – even though he knew he would never fathom her powers. His world had no such creatures except in fairy tales and myths but then it struck him: the university had been awash with tales and rumours about the strange events happening around that patient of Doctor Smith’s. He’d seen the vending machine embed itself in a wall then he had witnessed the hell-lights and been translocated into this world. He had no rational explanation for these events yet here was: Light-Father to the Scatterlings.
He listened to the rain hammering onto the roof and the bass reverberations of the thunder shaking both innards and the dust from ceilings and shelves and decided that there was nowhere else in the universe he would rather be. He saw damp patches forming in the ceiling corners and resisted the sudden irrational urge to go upstairs and fix the hail-shattered roof tiles.
“This home will soon succumb to the elements,” Fern sighed. “As will millions of others,” she paused at the sound of shouting and a brief scuffle in the kitchen. She turned to Peter who was wide awake with his eyes shining brightly in the candle light: “Ignore them, Peter, it is but a family reunion unsought-for. Tell us what happened to you in those three long weeks away from us.”
Peter held up his stump bearing the knife and Harold’s eyes widened. “Yes, Light-Father. Brother Ignatius made this new leather sheath for me.”
“Then tell us more about him,” Harold urged. “This storm will last for hours so we have plenty of time.”
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