Susan Boulton: author
Susan Boulton: author

 

 

 

All Things Seen

First published by Meadowhawk Press in the Anthology Touched by Wonder.

 

We are at the moment working in the left-hand corner of the eastern end of the transept. Here, as was custom, those of rank were laid under the stones, close to the site of the altar. We have so far successfully removed three sets of remains. From the fragments accompanying them, Dr Cutz has ascertained they are former priors of the abbey. The remains therefore date from the late 14th century, a period when the abbey was at the height of its power, two centuries before its destruction during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

We have also found below the priors’ resting place, what looks like part of the original 12th century structure, which stood on this site prior to the abbey. This is very exciting. The Church of St John by Curlsborough was what was called a fortified church. Such a building served a dual purpose for a community in those troubled times of reciprocal raids by both sides; that of both a place of worship and refuge. The eastern end and tower above were strengthened, and could be sealed off from the rest of the nave. We have discovered rusted remains of what probably served as a portcullis between the two sections.

 

So little time... They come again now. We have barricaded the door afresh, but this place was not meant to withstand such a sustained attack. They will be in before dusk I am sure of it. I have spoken with Dunstan and the rest of the men; the Scots when they enter shall find no woman or child alive for their sport.

But I cannot but feel that it is the presence of my bridal train here that has drawn these northern wolves south. For such is my dowry that my father placed his most trusted man at arms in command of my escort, Dunstan, he that has held my heart since my eyes first beheld him, and for whom I would forgo wealth and all it pertains.

 

We continue to work along the line of the wall of what looks like the original church. It seems that just the room below the tower has survived. The walls end at what was once the entry to the church’s small nave.

The stone wall is in remarkable condition for being buried for so long and still bears extensive scorch marks, making it plain that at some time a massive fire blazed within this section. Was this the cause of its destruction? One of the students, Richard, swears he can smell burning each time he enters the trench. Some of these youngsters have a twisted sense of humour! Dr Cutz and Jennifer have gone into Carlisle, they hope to uncover more there concerning the early church.

 

My brave Dunstan and the men have managed to throw back the Scots again. Such a fire of arrows did they rain down from the high windows on the first floor and the tower’s roof, that the enemy stumbled and fell over themselves in fear as they fled. The few that broached the door were soon killed, and now all seem to have withdrawn. God, in his good grace, has granted us all here one more night of life, one where I am still not another man’s wife. That amidst this horror I feel glad weighs heavy on my heart. 

 

We have widened the trench, as we have now reached the original floor. Five feet in from the wall the texture of the stone slabs has changed. I am amazed at the state of them. They shake off the soil as if it had not clung to them for over nine centuries and they are a rich, blood-red colour, most unusual. It would seem the floor is laid out in some sort of a pattern, as these red slabs cover only the centre of the room. They are also engraved with a curious Latin text, this I have translated as “In flame they ascended into God’s good grace”.

This is not typical of the times and I find it most strange. I have my suspicions as to what we may have here, but I will keep them to myself until I have confirmation. To raise the slabs would mean expanding our dig and overextending our slender resources, but I am convinced it would be worth it. It would prove a few of my colleagues wrong with their opinions, with regards to the wasting of the university’s money on this much-pored-over site.

We have recovered a large amount of arrowheads, and even a sword, the condition of which astounds us all. Dr Cutz lost his temper the second he saw the sword and rounded on some of the jokesters among our students, accusing them of salting the dig for fun. It was only when I myself stated I had supervised the removal of the blade, did he calm down. He seemed shaken as he carefully raised the weapon, his eyes unfocused. The unsettling nature of this dig is affecting us all.

The smell of burning was not a figment of Richard’s sense of humour and it is indeed noticeable to all on the dig. In fact the smell has increased, and there is also a sickly sweet smell, which clings to clothes and equipment. Richard has started to make comments about road-kill. Though every one laughs, there seems to be an increase of tension on the site and one finds oneself starting at shadows.

I too feel that here, we are standing on the site of some tragic event. The air almost tastes of grief and loss. I hope that Dr Cutz and Jennifer’s continued search for information will uncover something that will help us in this.

 

I stand, my body pressed to my beloved Dunstan’s. My back is against the cold stone on the curve of the stairs, which lead to the roof. The women and children sleep on the first floor below us. The men off duty snatch sleep on the ground floor and above us those on watch scan the horizon for our enemy. This is one of the few places which grants us some element of privacy.

That we both will surely die come the dawn does not seem to matter. I will now not complete my journey to my betrothed’s home. I will now not have to deny the love I have for a mere man at arms. In the eyes of God, if not man, we are this night man and wife. He unclasps my cloak and it falls to the floor around my feet. I yield my body to Dunstan’s embrace and glory in it, for we are one and none can gainsay it, or alter the course of what will be on the morrow. May the Lord forgive me, I would not have it otherwise, save that it be just my beloved and I that journeyed on. 

 

Today we uncovered the first few steps of what was once the stairwell to the original tower above the eastern end of the church. Jennifer recovered a clasp from a woman’s cloak here. It is finely made, the gold shines brightly, untarnished by its years under ground.

The evening after she recovered the clasp, Jennifer was found curled up asleep on this part of the dig by security. When the surprised guard woke her, she began to cry and kept calling the name Dunstan. Dr Cutz has ordered the poor girl to rest for a few days; she seems the most affected by the atmosphere here.

A local historian by the name of Captain George Mason, who has made a study of the early church, will be joining us tomorrow. Dr Cutz believes he might help us in light of what he found in the documents; copies of which we are expecting to arrive from Carlisle on Friday.

I have ordered some air extractors; the smell in the trench is becoming overpowering. I have also made preparations to seal the site in plastic sheeting. If we raise the slabs we will have to take the necessary precautions, as I am convinced a large crypt lies beneath. How I know this I am not sure, but the more I stand and look at the slabs and their inscription, the more I feel it. I have, unknown to Dr Cutz, contacted the authorities and gained permission to continue under this assumption.

 

Dawn creeps ever closer. Father Clements has laced the last of his sacred wine with laudanum. This, mothers have given to their children, so they sleep and do not feel the bite of their fathers’ blades.

Many have been burdened by guilt, the sin of taking life troubling them. Father Clements has taken the confession of these souls, assuring them that their loved ones are in the embrace of Christ, and that the taking of their life was a gift. I am sure this is not within the church’s strict canon, but Father Clements loves his flock too much to see them torn apart by the Scottish wolves at our door.

Some of the women have chosen to join their children now, though I and others still cling to life and have helped lay all those gone before the church’s alter. I now intend to join Father Clements on my knees before the shine of our Lord, praying for the souls of those departed and those soon to join them.

While my beloved Dunstan lives I cannot leave his side, but I have promised to join him if he falls, by my own hand if needs be.

 

I have spent the day at our headquarters, the Nag’s Head public house, with Dr Cutz and Captain George Mason. Dr Cutz is still angry with me regarding the lifting of the slabs, but even he, in light of what George has told us, sees the sense of my actions.

Gilard De Mortam, in memory of his betrothed, Lady Isobel Fitzmorgan, made a grant of land for the abbey. It had been assumed that she had died of some illness before the wedding could take place. But George, I think of him as George already, not Captain Mason, has found evidence that Gilard paid for masses to be said for her soul, and for those that perished in the flames with her. The document also states that the remains of all should be laid to rest within the abbey church.

This, George believes, dovetails neatly into the fate of the village of Curlsborough. According to the records it was a thriving community up to the spring of 1158, after that it vanished. A new village sprang up to the west of the abbey, and this is where we now sit in the Nag’s Head. It was plain, George said, that village and church were attacked and destroyed by the Scots.

I am not so sure, but what of Lady Isobel? Had she been caught up in this supposed attack? Well, tomorrow we will be a step closer to finding out. The dig is now swathed in a large plastic tent and we, in the morning, will don white coveralls and begin the lifting of the slabs. I have asked George to join us. George has an enthusiasm for history I often find lacking in my students, and I find him good company. He has a soldier’s sharp appraisal of the facts, which I find refreshing. 

 

They come with the first pale light of dawn, hammering at our defences. Dunstan rallies the few men of my escort and the villagers, urging them to make the Scots pay in blood. My maid Lilly weeps and moans, her eyes wide in fear. I wish Dunstan had aided her passage on, but she denied him, and holds still in loyalty to my side.

The door is breeched. The enemy enter. Men fall. I look for my beloved Dunstan’s helm among the chaos. Father Clements mumbles prayers, as his bloody knife dispatches another of his parish. Lilly screams and clutches at my gown. I turn; my eyes following her shaking hand, as it points above the church alter.

Figures clothed in white, their faces veiled, stand looking on. Angels. My heart lurches. Has God answered my prayers?  Will all be saved? But no, the slaughter continues. They are here then, this angelic host, to guide us to our place beside our Lord Christ? For a moment I fear for my beloved, for the sin on both our souls, for I was another man’s betrothed.

But as if in answer to my fear the Angel at the hosts’ centre reaches out a hand to me in a gesture of compassion, and with eyes tear-drenched looks deep into mine. The tall member of the host, on this Angel’s right hand clasps his fellow’s arm, steadying him. I take comfort in this vision and allow my eyes to again seek my beloved amidst the battling horde. I hope in the deepest part of my heart that he too has been granted this blessed sight.

The men, what is left of them, have fallen back. My beloved, his mail rent, helm knocked from his brow, forces his way to my side. I glance once more at the Angels and then I open my arms for the embrace of the steel in my Dunstan’s hand.

The blade enters my flesh. I renounce the pain, welcoming it as a loving embrace. I raise my hand to by beloved’s face, touching it one last time. I am still held to this life, my breath hitches and blood bubbles in my throat.

I hear the clatter of the dropped blade and feel Dunstan’s arms enfold and lower me to the ground. His tears wash me. As my sight fades a figure looms behind him. I see a sword plummet down, piercing my beloved’s flesh, pinning it to mine. I struggle with the last measure of my strength to embrace him. But my soul is leaving, embraced by his, my beloved, my plain man-at-arms.

My last thought is of flame and smoke; the Scots in anger at being so thwarted have fired the church.

 

It has been three days since we raised the first row of slabs. The events I saw portrayed that morning still burn behind my eyes. Did we see what we saw? My heart says yes, but my mind?

Dr Cutz has finished the preliminary examination of the burial pit. We have decided to do as much of the work as we can on site. I am loath to “split” the remains. I feel that they should be kept together, and Dr Cutz concurs.

George and I have spent the evenings discussing what we experienced; no, arguing would be a better term. The death of the young noble woman at the hands of what seemed to be one of her own people shocked me. I felt she had been betrayed. George on the other hand, in his crisp military-tinged voice said she was not betrayed, but saved. It was plain, to him at least, that the man at arms acted out of compassion, no, love for her. The man could not save her but he could make her death a clean one.

Is this so? Was this the reason we were given this vision? No, it was not just a vision; we were there for a few moments. The smell, sound and emotion clothed us, leaving behind what--a layer of understanding? George is convinced we were granted this, not so much as to witness their death, but to witness their love, which was strong enough to face what lies beyond this vale. For an ex-army officer he is sometimes the most romantic man I have ever met.

 

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© Susan Boulton