Authors: Pat Walsh
WITH LOVE ALWAYS
TABLE OF CONTENTS
illiam put the pail of water on the bench beside the workshop door and blew into his cupped hands to warm them. The March morning was cold, and a biting wind whipped the gray clouds across the sky. Rain fell steadily, as it had done for weeks past, filling ditches and puddles, and dripping from the reed thatch of Brother Snail's hut.
He heard a rustling in the blackthorn tree growing beside the hut. A twig dropped onto his head, and he peered up through the branches. A long tail with a tuft of red fur on the end curved around the trunk of the tree. It twitched and flexed and suddenly flicked out of sight.
“Brother Walter?” William called. “What are you doing up there?”
“Watching things,” the hob said softly.
William walked around the tree until he could see the hob, sitting in the fork of a branch, his golden-green eyes wide and fierce as he stared out over the sheep pasture beyond the vegetable garden of the abbey. His fox-red fur was sleek with rainwater.
William peered into the misty distance but couldn't see anything to explain the hob's odd behavior. “What things?”
“Them,” the hob said softly, pointing to the far side of the pasture, toward Two Penny Copse, where a huddle of wet ewes and lambs sheltered beneath the low sweeping branches of the oak trees.
The hob shook his head impatiently. “No, no, no.
William squinted through the rain. The hob's eyesight was sharper than his, and it took him some moments before he saw what the hob was watching so intently. Crows perched beside twiggy nests in the upper branches of the trees, cawing into the wind as the trees swayed and creaked like ships at sea. Far below them, four of the strangest creatures William had ever seen were making their way hurriedly past the sheep. Hunched and wizened and no taller than a small child, they looked like little old men in tattered dun-colored clothing. They moved furtively, scurrying between the animals and the tree trunks, clearly anxious to stay hidden.
William caught his breath. “What are they?”
“Mound elves,” the hob said. There was something in the tone of his voice that told William that he didn't like these creatures. “They live inside the grave mounds where humans buried their dead long ago. Something must have frightened them very badly to make them come above ground in daylight.”
William watched as the creatures darted toward the thorn hedge marking the western boundary of the abbey's lands, then disappeared from sight.
Why were they in such a hurry? What were they running away from? William looked across the sheep pasture toward the misty gray outline of Foxwist Wood uneasily.
What if it's him?
William thought with a sudden shiver.
What if the Dark King has returned?
The hob climbed down from the tree. He stood beside William for a few moments, his face sharp with anxiety. “Something bad is coming,” he whispered.
William crouched down beside him. “Is it the king?”
“No,” the hob said, edging a little closer to him, “not the king. Something much,
worse than him.”
“And it's in the forest?”
The hob nodded. “It's close by, maybe in the forest, maybe here in the brother men's stone place. I don't know for sure, but I can
With a last fearful glance around, the hob hurried to the door of the hut and disappeared inside. Slowly, William got to his feet. He trusted the hob's instincts. If something evil was stirring, then Brother Walter would sense it long before William did.
But if it wasn't the Dark King, then what was it?
William trudged along the path through the abbey garden. The ground was sodden underfoot, and water oozed up to soak his boots. He reached the wattle gate and climbed over. It was easier than fiddling with the bit of wet rope tying it closed.
Three monks emerged from the passageway between the abbey church and the chapter house. Their cowls were pulled up against the rain, hiding their faces, but William recognized tall, skinny Prior Ardo and plump little Brother Gabriel. The third monk was Brother Snail, small and hunchbacked. He trailed a little way behind his two companions as they walked around the east end of the church.
The prior saw William and called, “Come here, boy.”
William broke into a run, jumping over puddles, and came to a skidding halt in front of the monks. The prior frowned at William's muddy boots and stockings. His expression was more than usually sour.
“Come with us,” the prior said. He turned and walked along the narrow path around to the north side of the church. Here the ground was rough and overgrown and permanently in the shadow of the huge building. It had been used as a burial ground by the first monks at Crowfield, but the abbey's dead were now buried in the graveyard behind the chapter house.
William walked along beside Brother Snail. “Where are we going?”
Brother Snail pointed to the corner between two walls where a triangle of deep water reflected the rain clouds.
“Here?” William asked, glancing at the monk. “Why?”
Brother Snail twisted his head and shoulders sideways so he could look up at the wall of the chancel. “Because of
William followed his gaze. A crack, wide enough to fit his fist into, had split the stonework from the roof to the edge of one of the windows.
“It's wider than it was yesterday,” Brother Gabriel said anxiously. Raindrops collected on the end of his nose, and he wiped them away with his sleeve. “Perhaps if we drain the water . . .”
“It wouldn't make any difference,” the prior interrupted impatiently. “It will just flood again. The ground on this side of the church has always been waterlogged.”
“But why has the wall started to crack apart
?” Brother Snail said. He spoke calmly, but William saw the worried look in his eyes.
“Does it matter? The wall has probably been weakening for years,” the prior said.
“I am sure it has, but it doesn't look as if the wall is sinking,” Brother Snail said slowly. “It looks more like something is pushing it up from
An uneasy silence fell as William and the monks stared down at the base of the wall. Brother Snail was right, William realized. There was a definite upward tilt to the courses of stone.
“But what could possibly be doing that?” Brother Gabriel asked, a quiver of panic in his voice.
“What indeed?” Brother Snail murmured.
“An underground spring?” William suggested.
“Quite possibly,” the prior said. “But what matters now is that if the crack continues to grow, it could bring the wall down. We should move whatever we can out of the church, just in case. You, boy, go and fetch Shadlok. He can start taking the statues to safety. And then I want you to take a message to Sir Robert at Weforde.”
“Sir Robert?” William asked, mystified.
“He has stonemasons working on alterations to his manor house,” Brother Snail said. “He might be kind enough to spare one to come and look at the crack and tell us if there is anything we can do to prevent it from getting worse.”
The prior's frown deepened. He didn't look pleased that one of his monks was taking the time to explain such important matters to a servant boy. “Don't just stand there!” he snapped. “Do as you're told.”
William sprinted back around the end of the church, through the monks' graveyard, and on past the hazel coppice. Shadlok had spent the last week clearing a patch of rough ground between the coppice and the sheep pasture, where the monks intended to plant a new orchard. The old trees were giving less fruit with each passing year, and the prior had decided it was time to start again on new ground.
Shadlok looked surprised to see him. He straightened up and rested his hands on the handle of his shovel. Rainwater dripped from the ends of his long silver-white hair and soaked the shoulders and back of his dark green tunic. “You are going the wrong way,” he said, and nodded to the abbey buildings. “The kitchen is over there. Isn't that where you are supposed to be?”
“The prior sent me to fetch you. He has work for you in the church.”
Shadlok went very still. There was a strange look in his pale blue eyes as he stared at William. “In the church?”
William nodded. “He thinks the chancel wall is in danger of falling down, and he wants you to move whatever you can out of harm's way.”
Shadlok's long fingers gripped the shovel handle tightly. “It is not a place I care to go near.”
Shadlok pulled the shovel from the ground and turned away. “I have my reasons.”
William stood for a few moments, not sure what to do now. He didn't relish the prospect of telling the prior that Shadlok had refused to do as he was told.
“There'll be trouble,” William said with a helpless shrug. “Prior Ardo expects his orders to be obeyed without question.”
Shadlok said nothing. He swung the shovel into the ground and started to dig. William watched him in silence.
The fay glanced over his shoulder with a quick frown. “Why are you still here?”
“I'm waiting for you to tell me why you won't go into the church. And I know it's not because you're a fay and you
,” he added, “because the hob goes in there all the time, even though I tell him not to.”
Shadlok straightened up and turned to face him. “There is something in the building that I have no desire to go near.”
William didn't like the sound of this. “Oh? What is it?”
“I do not know,” Shadlok said slowly. “It is hidden from my sight.”
“The hob and I saw some mound elves this morning,” William said. “They were crossing the sheep pasture, heading westward. They were running away from something.”
“They are not the first fays to leave the forest in the last few days. I have seen others, all moving westward. Something is waking . . .” The fay's voice trailed away, and with a frown he turned to gaze at the rain-misted bulk of the abbey church. It was several moments before he spoke again. “They sense a growing threat. I feel it, too.”
“The hob said something evil is coming.”
“Perhaps it is already here,” Shadlok said grimly.
Was it a coincidence, William wondered, that Shadlok and the hob could sense the stirring of something evil at the same time that the crack had begun to split apart the chancel wall?
there something beneath the church, as Brother Snail believed, pushing its way up through the waterlogged ground? And if there was, why was it waking now?
Shadlok hefted the shovel in his hand and turned away. “You can tell the prior that I will not step inside the building. If he wants the statues moved, he will have to find someone else to do it.”