Chapter 17: Abbess
Chapter 17 of the City of Gargoyles: Book 2 in the Light-Father Trilogy
The four young Scatterlings find another unusual ally at the Great Abbey and they learn how the Order became completely corrupted and collectively insane…
Surl awoke in the pitch black dark and no matter how she tossed and turned on her makeshift bed she could not find sleep again. She’d had no dream or vision so she felt truly blind for the first time in years but she felt no fear only a curiosity about her powers and a fleeting hope that she was becoming ‘normal’. The cellar was quiet apart from the waters gushing past the access door, rats skittering in the 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 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 she had given this little thought before bed so she sheathed her weapon and padded upstairs to the store-room where, to her relief, 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 from the Order in an inspection chamber in the garden while their parents and their brother and sister were tortured in the family home. She wept silently, recalling how she knew they were dead and picking flowers to place beside their blood-soaked bodies.
Then there was the garage at their grandparents’ house and how the elderly couple had refused to let them in for fear of the Plague. Ruff-Ruff, the Feral who joined them came to mind and how she felt her grandparents dying before 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 glad she could 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 to be clean so she breathed a sigh of relief and washed her hands before returning to the cellar to store the food away.
She sat on her bedding and listened to all the sounds about her: the water, the others breathing and a faint sound of the Great Bell tolling six times to call the Order to Matins. She closed her eyes and crossed her legs – as Mother Moss had taught her to do – and let her mind drift upon the sounds. She opened her eyes suddenly as she could clearly hear a 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 again 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 mourning the dead Sisters in the kitchen. There were other voices; frantic and disjointed:
“So many Sisters are dead!”
“Oh! There’s 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 many of the crops are ruined. What shall we do?”
“If the sunlamps don’t work: the plants won’t grow!”
“There were fires and explosions all night!”
“What happened to the electrics?”
“They got into Magdalene House and not one Sister survived!”
“In Saint Mary’s, they were murdered in their beds!”
“And Saint Catherine’s. All dead! 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 with an authority and intelligence demonstrably lacking in the others: “Sisters, I have visited all the Houses in the Enclave and I’m afraid only those of you in Saint Agnes House and in my Manse were spared this calamity. The Fathers tell me that the Wiccans and their cohorts attacked the Great Cathedral yesterday and bewitched the Tally-Men into attacking us.”
“We saw them by the Eastern Processional after we’d delivered food to 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 do this?”
“What about Matins, Noon Prayer and Vespers?”
The Abbess spoke curtly in a raised voice: “Stop babbling! We will not observe them 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 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, sausage 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 and making her gasp. Tally-men were lumbering past into the kitchen with stretchers to begin the removal of 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 set about their duties. It was like a switch had been thrown to erase their memory of the dead. 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 and ghastly parody of its former life.
The corridor fell silent for several minutes and Surl was about to return to the cellar 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’re there, child,” the Abbess said. 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 light through the door crack.”
Surl cursed herself but held her tongue and waited in an agony of suspense for several minutes of absolute silence.
“So be it, child,” the Abbess sighed heavily. “I would’ve loved to hear the sweet voice of a child again to fill the emptiness in both my womb and heart. I saw the four of you emerge from the bell tower through the pall of smoke so I presumed 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 but I did sense a foul shadow growing in the Great Abbey ten years before the Plague. After the Plague, it got worse until I couldn’t bear to be near the Great Annex – such was the satanic malice I felt emanating through its walls.”
The Abbess fell silent for a minute. “I could put no words to this evil but I could feel that same malign presence behind the exegesis corrupting the Conclave and shrouding the Brothers’ hearts. Thus when the monstrous Seven-Headed Lamb was found, they sent forth the Virus without question. Like yours no doubt, my family fell to the Plague and my faith was tested and found wanting. Brothers were filled with a satanic hatred and sent to hunt down survivors across the globe; slaughtering infants and innocents; branding them all Unworthy to justify each atrocity.”
She laughed bitterly: “I am brought low: confessing my sins to a mute Child of Exodus through a crack in a door: a poor excuse for a confessional. Forgive me for I have sinned, dear heart, and for six years I have been trapped here out of despair and 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, but 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 mercifully provided a sanctuary for all these simple-minded women who would otherwise be preyed upon in a cruel world. Fool that I am, I did not realise how corrupt and misogynistic the machinations of the Order were.”
There was another pause yet Surl could not move as she was mesmerised. “Then the Tally-men were created to assist in the Inquisitions – so called as to legitimise the butchery. How my poor Sisters quailed at the screams from beneath the Great Manse and the thin young men in chains being led into the Redemption Cells. Redemption: oh, how that holy word has been twisted! I heard how their brains were sliced open and those Guides driven into their skulls to create slaves without conscience. I care not if the Wiccans turned them upon us or not: it was no more than the Order deserved for stealing their bodies and their souls…”
The Abbess faltered and stifled several choking sobs: “With the world gone, I remained and countenanced one unspeakable horror after another. I closeted myself in my Manse and prayed until I could pray no more. I became like Brother Ignatius in his tower: he to his books and I to my precious Sisters; keeping them chaste and safe from the grasping lust of Brother, 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 darkness that ensnares us and be wary of the Wiccans: fear their powers and remember that they are not of God and may lead thee astray onto even darker paths. I think we’ll meet again before all is done but I must leave you now and tend to my poor brood mares. Farewell, 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 as she switched on the lantern. She slapped herself hard in the face several times. “Stupid, stupid, stupid Surl!” she muttered angrily then, her heart heavy with self-contempt, she returned to the cellar to find Peter awake and lighting candles.
“Good morrow, fair maid,” he smiled, bowing gallantly.
“There’s nothing good about this day nor am I a fair maid!”
He looked crestfallen at her tone: “Hoi! What’s wrong? I was only trying to cheer you up.”
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’ve done it straight away not waited until there was nobody in the corridor and then poured her heart out to you. She hates the Order for killing her family and she feels she has nowhere to go so she stays to look after the Sisters.”
“Yes and now we know how few Brothers and Sisters remain alive but I made a stupid mistake with that lantern: if my brother was here, you can imagine how he would scold 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. “You know Amos is a bull-pat with no compassion or sense of humour so stop being a worry-wart: maybe she will help us like Ignatius and then maybe she won’t. How did she know he was in the cellar?”
“Oh, she knows about the wine racks down here and how he likes his drink,” Surl said thoughtfully. “Having two people who know about us is not good but we have no choice: we have to trust them because if they were going to betray us they would have done so by now and we would all be dead.”
“Then stop belittling yourself,” he said stoutly. “We still live thanks to you and your visions and we can do a lot of damage before we escape. With your power we can do anything!”
Surl bowed her head: “My visions have stopped. I can’t 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 Pup who were slowly starting to wake up. “Let’s get some breakfast ready for the little ones first.”
She opened up the large jar as Peter set plates for them. She buttered hunks of bread for them all and cut the cheese and dried meats into slices with one of her knives.
Peter put a piece of linen over his forearm 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 from when his family had dined in a 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 excellent water to wash it down.”
“Pup’s confused,” Pup said blearily. “Did you hit your head?”
“He’s pretending he’s a waiter and we’re the rich diners,” Rabbit yawned. “I would rather the 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’ll 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 their 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 sounded, all four children were already away from the table in fighting stances and holding their weapons at the ready.
After two minutes of bated breath, 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 at 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: “Ha! 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, garages, the generator room, the former Exodus laboratories where begiullers were made, the Angel hangars, the Great Manse and the Great Annex. “Bless Ignatius: we have a chance,” she sighed with relief. “We might be able to stop them from searching for the Light-Father and the others.”
Pup paused from slurping at his hot tea. “Does that mean we‘re not going to die?” he asked brightly. “Are we really going to finish the Saga of Pup the Mighty and his Catapult of Justice?”
Despite her heavy heart, Surl nodded and forced a smile: “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!”
“I think I need more food,” Peter declared as his stomach growled loudly. “I can barely hear the rain and thunder!”
Surl yawned, stretched and snuggled into Harold’s chest again pinning him to the sofa. “Uff! She’s solid for such a young girl,” he muttered ruefully. Her machete was still in its sheath and he had to take it off her as the hilt was digging into his shoulder. He noticed with mild surprise that his katana was also making its presence felt making 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 leant against Fern with a contented smile on her face and an axe in each hand.
Peter had paused in his tale to sit in one of the arm chairs and finish the second bowl of broth that 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 growing maternal feelings for both children as she held them close to her: a small pool of solace in their nightmarish, dystopian childhoods.
“I hear your thoughts, dear heart,” she said candidly. “I too wish I could grant these poor children a peaceful life.”
He was about to reprimand her for using telepathy but his ire dissolved in the deep adoration 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 rumours about inexplicable events happening around that bizarre patient of Doctor Smith’s. He’d seen the vending machine embed itself in a wall then he’d witnessed the hell-lights and the shadows and then he’d been translocated into this world. He had no rational explanation for these events yet here was: the Light-Father.
He listened to the rain hammering onto the roof and the bass reverberations of the thunder shaking both innards and the dust from the ceilings and shelves and decided that there was nowhere in the universe he would rather be. He saw damp patches forming in the ceiling corners and resisted a sudden irrational urge to go upstairs and fix the hail-shattered 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 staring at her, his eyes shining brightly in the candle light: “Ignore them, Peter: it’s only a family reunion. Please, tell us what happened next in the Saga of Pup the Mighty.”
Peter patted his stump and Harold’s eyes widened. “Yes, Light-Father,” he grinned. “Brother Ignatius made this wonderful new leather sheath for me. It fits perfectly.”
“Then tell us more about him,” Harold urged. “This storm will last for hours so we have all the time in the world.”
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