*This excerpt will be available to read until May 20th.
An Excerpt from the novel
an unholy fellowship
tom r. mcconnell
The old woman knew the Angel of Death was nigh.
She had no idea how long they had been walking. A dozen furlongs back, she heard a bell toll Matins. It must be nearly Lauds by now. She would not yield to the lad’s pleadings to rest, but kept them moving, trying to generate enough heat to keep them from freezing. After much whining and protest, he would not advance another step. It was then she fashioned the sling and hoisted him onto her back to carry him, pudgy arms encircling her neck, tiny hands clasped under her chin.
Her shoes wrapped with rags for extra warmth, the old woman trudged along the deserted road. Keeping to the side, she skirted cottages and farms and used any trees or copses close to the track to avoid being seen. Bent into a stiff wind, she squinted her eyes against the stinging snow. Stiff with ice, tufts of straggly gray hair stuck out from her hood.
“Hush, little one,” she said. “No more tears.” The child whimpered softly in her ear.
“Soon, Ernulf,” she said, her voice silky, attempting to soothe the fussing lad. “Ye have three summers and must be brave. Hush, now. We find warm soon.”
The sky was a starless gray and devoid of moonlight. A bridge appeared out of the darkness in front of them, the river flowing silently underneath. Ice encroached from both shores leaving a narrow open run and slowing the water’s lazy progress to the sea. The only sound was the lonely voice of the wind as it whistled over the ground, around the low-slung stone walls bordering the fields, and through the trees lining the road. It carried the smell of wood smoke from hearth fires kept going long into the night against the cold.
A tightness in the old woman’s chest increased with every step.
The smell of smoke grew as she neared the lane that would pass though the center of the next village. Guessing the church was still at least a furlong ahead, she stopped briefly to catch her breath, gently shifting her precious cargo to a more secure position. The pain subsided a little. She tried to take a deep breath. Her lungs were too weak and would not fill. Slowly, she stepped forward again, a prayer on her lips.
She passed shadowy shapes of villein huts, peeking out of the drifted snow flanking the lane. They must be close. The village forge loomed to the side, the ever-present odor of burning charcoal from its furnace fire, banked until morning, wafting over the night air. The usual clang of the smith’s hammer and the whoosh of the bellows were still, the windows dark, and large doors, closed for the night, covered the gaping maw in the front.
Soon, the monks would rouse themselves from sleep for prayer, and she expected to hear the bell toll any moment. It was essential to get the boy there before they began without being seen. She tried to quicken her pace. Agonizing pain, beginning in her chest, shot through her shoulder and down her left arm. The severity of it caused her to stumble. She stopped, clutched her breast and grit her teeth. She let out a groan that sounded like the wind. Head swirling, she tried again to take a deep breath, but could only manage a wheeze.
Peering through the driving snow, she saw the ghostly shape of a wall ahead. She trudged forward, scanning for a gate that she hoped would lead to the small church.
“Almost there,” she whispered.
“Where?” the boy asked.
“A safe place,” she reassured. “A holy place.”
Shuffling through the powdery snow, her feet felt as though they were encased in lead. Still, she put one foot in front of the other, praying each step brought them closer to safety. The pain came again. She stopped and stood, rooted in place, stooping from her burden, hands resting on bent knees. Try as she would, she could not stifle the groan she felt coming.
“Myfanwy?” The boy’s voice was full of fear as he gripped tighter around her neck.
“It be fine, child,” she said, her breath raspy. She plodded ahead another few yards. She spied a gate through the white haze and warily looked around. The likelihood of anyone being out at this hour in this cold was slim but, still, she was cautious.
About to grasp the latch to the gate, the pain came again, so intense it crippled her. “You hold too tight,” she said, loosing the child’s grip around her neck. Her knees buckled, and she flung herself against the wall to keep from falling. Sinking to her knees, she reached out her hand for the cord attached to the small brass bell that hung next to the gate. Her freezing fingers clutched at it, but the rope slipped through them as she continued downward. The bell gave off one barely audible clang, and fell silent.
The child on her back pitched to one side and nearly fell off. Resting on her hands and knees, she fought to gain control of her breathing.
“Ddim eto. Mwy o amser,” she said, her hoarse voice entreating the old gods for more time.
The peal of the church bell broke through the silence and the fog tolling the hour, a ghostly sound seeming to emanate from nowhere.
Head spinning, her whole body trembled. She coughed, moisture spraying her lips. She ran her tongue across them and tasted the blood. There may not be much time and she must hurry. Summoning what meager strength she could, the crone threw back her cloak and fought to untie the sling across her shoulder with one hand, the other planted firmly on the ground for balance. Her fingers would not work. Abandoning the knot, she tried to maneuver the sling over her head to ease the boy to the ground. Eventually, he tumbled out of the sling and struggled to stand.
“The latch,” she said in a voice that was barely a whisper. “Ernulf, pull the latch.”
Only the child’s eyes showed from a break in the cloth wrappings. He stood and stared at her, clearly confused and frightened. She waved her hand toward the gate, but the boy did not move.
Though it took some time and effort, she climbed to her feet, and after waiting for her head to clear, she stepped up to the gate, drew the latch and pushed it open. Putting her two hands gently on the boy’s shoulders, she guided him through the gate and into the courtyard of the church. Then, without a word she turned, and grabbed the bell cord and pulled it several times. The high peal pierced the air, its urgency quickly swallowed up by the night. She rang it again.
She was about to close the gate when she heard his voice. “Myfanwy?”
The plaintiveness in his cry made her stop and have second thoughts. But only for a moment. She shook her head with determination and as tears streamed down her face; she turned away. If they followed her, they would only see one set of prints going to and from the gate, and not those of a child. She had taken but a few steps when the pain came, more forcefully this time. Waves of searing agony wracked her whole being as her heart seemed to explode in her chest. The child’s tiny voice drifted on the wind as the crone’s old, worn body crumpled to the ground. She gasped and the sound of her breath rattled in her throat.
“Myfanwy?” Ernulf cried as he ran toward her “Myfanwy, get up.”
She would deny him nothing, but could not get up as he had asked. She lay there clutching her breast, blood-laced spittle flying out from between clenched teeth as the sound of her pain roared past her lips.
“Go inside!” she hissed, motioning toward the gate. Another wave of pain assaulted her. The boy stood, transfixed, and started to cry. Suddenly, he threw himself on the old woman, clawing at her and weeping out of control. When she did not move or respond, he drew back and could only stare.
“Nani?” he whispered.
Ernulf began to shake the old woman’s body, pulling at the rags and repeating her name as he tried to crawl back into the sling still tied over her shoulder. She was his only refuge, and she knew he was frightened. As he continued pulling at her, she felt herself roll over. He fell backwards, his legs pinned as she rolled on top of him.
Then, in an instant her world went white as the snow around her. The old woman’s struggle ceased. She became still, her lifeless eyes open to the sky, no longer squinting against the stinging snow. The last thing she heard was his sobs drifting away on the wind.
✞ ✞ ✞
Brother Rhonwellt shuffled to the washbasin, broke through the thin layer of ice and splashed his face to wash away the sleep. The bitter chill of the water nearly took his breath away. His rest had been fitful, and it was especially hard to rouse himself from his warm bed for Lauds. Though away from the priory and ministering to his own parishioners for over fifteen full moons, he and his young assistant, Brother Ciaran still faithfully observed all prayer times, even those in the middle of the night. For Rhonwellt, the habits of a score-and-ten summers would not die easily. Yet, on cold nights such as this, the temptation to stay abed was strong.
“Come, lad. God awaits.”
As Rhonwellt stepped to the corner of the room to relieve himself in the chamber pot, Ciaran peered out from his hood wrapped in his bedclothes.
“Oh, Brother Rhonwellt,” he groaned, “it is so cold my breath hangs on the air. God will hear me just as well if I pray from here. Will He not?”
Finishing at the pot, then lighting a candle, Rhonwellt cast an indulgent smile toward the cot where Ciaran lay. “If you pray from your bed,” teased Rhonwellt, “you would be wise to add a prayer to strengthen your resolve toward obedience. We are instructed to pray eight times a day, in Ecclesia…,”
“…in the church. I know, Brother Rhonwellt.”
“And, so we shall. Just because we are away from the Priory, does not mean we relax the Rule. Now, up with you.”
The young monk threw back his covers with a groan and quickly pulled on a pair of thick woolen socks and pushed his large feet into his shoes. Hauling his tall, rail-thin frame upright, Ciaran let loose a loud yawn and attempted to stretch the sleepiness away. He then crossed the rush-covered floor and took his turn at the chamber pot.
“I do not think I shall ever get accustomed to rising in the middle of the night to pray,” he said to the wall. Ciaran emitted another hearty yawn and the dark brown curls of his tonsure bounced as he shook his head to stave off the drowsiness.
“You have managed since you were twelve,” Rhonwellt said. “Five summers should be more than enough time to reconcile yourself to the hours we keep.”
“A lifetime would not be enough. But I am resolved.” Ciaran walked to the basin and splashed his face with the frigid water. Rhonwellt handed him a linen for drying and offered a warm smile. The young monk blushed and buried his face in the cloth.
“I shall uncover the coals and put on some peat before we go into the church. It should catch and lift some of the chill for when we return.”
“But, the church will be bitter as well,” the young monk protested. “How do you propose to remedy that?”
“I do not propose remedy at all. It will test your devotion. After you,” said Rhonwellt, opening the door.
The two monks filed out of the small cottage and walked the two dozen steps to the back door of the church. The dry snow made crunching sounds under their feet. A small drift, blown up against the bottom, fell inward as Rhonwellt opened the heavy door and the monks entered.
By most standards, the Church of Saint Tysilio was small, not much more than a chapel. A single room with no crossing, the whole of it would fit into one the of transepts at Saint Cattwg’s. However, splendid craftsmanship made up for any lack in size. The roof trusses were sturdy, gracefully arched and amply adorned with Celtic knotwork. A local artist had started painting the walls with scenes telling stories from scripture. The pictures served to bring the sacred stories to life. Sir Tristan Cunniff, lord of the manor and Rhonwellt’s beloved since boyhood, had commissioned a new oaken altar carved with a likeness of its namesake, Saint Tysilio, seventh century Welsh Bishop and scholar and son of a Powys king. A rather large crucifix and two candlesticks made of gold sat proudly on a fine linen cloth covering the top. The smaller size of the room cut down on any echo and eliminated the need for Brother Rhonwellt to shout when performing Mass.
Walking to the front, both brothers knelt and signed the cross. Rhonwellt rose and went to a cresset lamp left burning in a side wall, put flame to a taper and lighted the candles on the altar. Ciaran yawned as he tugged on the bellpull, the clear peal of the bronze bell calling out the hour and the call to prayer. In this weather, the faithful seldom came to pray in the middle of the night.
Candles lit and the bell rung, the two monks knelt side-by-side and made the sign of the cross. They sang out the first few notes of the introduction to the first Psalm when Ciaran snapped his head around, eyes wide open and alert.
“What was that?”
“What was what?” replied Rhonwellt.
“It sounded like the bell at the front gate.”
“I heard nothing.”
Ciaran addressed his attention to the stillness. “I swear it rang, but only once.”
“Well, I did not hear it,” said Rhonwellt. He turned to look at Ciaran, but saw no mischief in the young monk’s eyes as he had expected, only concern. After a moment, he said, “Shall we proceed?”
They finished the verse and were starting to sing the Psalm when Ciaran stopped short. Rhonwellt turned toward him.
Ciaran answered the question in Rhonwellt’s gaze. “I am sure I heard something,”
Rhonwellt and Ciaran looked at each other. Without warning, the high peal of the bell invaded their devotions. Ciaran bolted for the large double doors at the front of the church. Looking behind him, just as Rhonwellt crossed himself, Ciaran quickly stopped, turned back to the altar, genuflected, signed the cross, and sped on his way.
Joining Ciaran at the entry, they opened one door a crack and peered out into the darkness. Visibility was less than a few paces. They strained to see. The great heavy door creaked as Rhonwellt pulled it open and they stepped outside onto the porch and stared around the courtyard.
“Listen,” said Ciaran. “Did you hear it?”
They stood motionless, training their ears into the night.
“It sounds like someone is crying,” said Rhonwellt, straining to see through the swirling snow.
“There, by the gate,” said Ciaran, pointing.
“I see it!” said Rhonwellt. “What is that?” Rhonwellt called over his shoulder, already running toward the gate. “Ciaran, bring light!”
Torch in hand, Ciaran caught up to him a moment later.
Rhonwellt stood looking down. On the ground lay the body of an old woman, snow piling up around her as though the wind knew she had died and had begun her burial. Her face was deeply lined and careworn, her lifeless eyes still black as night.
“Dear God, there is a child,” said Rhonwellt, “trapped beneath her.”
While Ciaran pulled the whimpering boy from under the body, Rhonwellt knelt down, pushed her stringy gray hair aside and laid his fingers on the large artery in her wrinkled neck.
“Is she dead, Brother Rhonwellt?” asked Ciaran, dread on his face and in his voice.
“I fear so,” said Rhonwellt, signing the cross. “I can feel no pulse and her face is cold.” He put his fingers to her wet lips and brought them to his nose. “Blood,” he said. He then placed his hand inside the neck of her ragged garment. “But where her body remains covered, it is yet warm. She is not long dead. But, it must have been she who rang the bell. The child is not tall enough to reach the cord.”
Ciaran crossed himself and holding the child in his arms knelt beside Rhonwellt. They both began to recite the Prayer for the Dead.
“Myfanwy?” whimpered the boy.
Ciaran abandoned his prayer.
The boy broke away from Ciaran’s embrace, knelt down, and touched the old woman’s face.
“Oh no child, you must not…” said Rhonwellt.
When she did not move or respond, the boy drew back and simply stared. “Nani?” he whispered. Then, he began to shake her, repeating the word over and over.
Reaching out, Rhonwellt took the small hands in his, drew the child away and leaned in to look at him.
“It is too late, child,” he said. “She is with God now.”
The child remained motionless in the cold and the snow while the monks resumed their prayer, his crying gradually subsiding.
“Come now,” Rhonwellt said at last, lifting the child into his arms. “We must get you in where it is warm.”
“What about…her?” Ciaran asked hesitantly.
“We shall move her onto that bench,” Rhonwellt said motioning toward the church porch. “The cold will keep her until we can deal with her come morn. However,” he said close to Ciaran’s ear, “we must cover her to keep birds from taking her eyes.”
“I shall retrieve a shroud from the church,” said Ciaran, “while you take him inside. Then I shall wake Sir Tristan.”
“She will be no more dead come the morn.” “He is the law and must be told.”
“He drank heavily yestereve and will likely be in foul humor. It can wait until he has had his rest. Come little one,” said Rhonwellt, “let us find you something to eat.” Seeming reluctant to leave the old woman, the boy looked from Rhonwellt toward the old woman’s body and back several times before his gaze finally settled on the monk. The child held out his arms, allowing Rhonwellt to pick him up.
Once in the cottage, Rhonwellt sat the boy in front of the hearth and lit a second candle. As the peat caught flame, Rhonwellt added twigs and worked the fire to life, while the boy sat quietly following his movements, occasional sniffling and sighing the only sound in the otherwise quiet.
The boy turned at the squeak of the hinges as Ciaran opened the door and entered, stomping the snow from his shoes.
“It is done,” said Ciaran.
Rhonwellt gave a brief nod. “Pour the lad a cup of cider. Water it well. I will cut some bread.”
The child had resumed his weeping, though less woefully. He ate between his sobs. Rhonwellt knelt in front of him.
“Have no fear, child. You are safe here. I am Brother Rhonwellt and this lad is Brother Ciaran,” Rhonwellt said, gesturing behind him. The child only stared, his eyes wide and unblinking, slowly chewing the bread, his body shaking with the staccato breaths from his weeping.
“Myfanwy?” the boy called again, his panicked gaze redirected toward the door.
That name was Welsh. “Do you speak our tongue?” Rhonwellt asked him.
Facing back toward Rhonwellt, the lad gave a hesitant nod.
“Fine,” the monk said, smiling reassuringly. “What is your name, child?”
The boy’s eyes tracked from Rhonwellt to Ciaran and back several times. “Ernulf,” he said in a quavering voice. Then, regarding to the door, he asked, “Where is Myfanwy?”
“Who is Myfanwy, child?” asked Rhonwellt. Ernulf shrugged his shoulders.
“Nani,” he said.
“Ah,” said Rhonwellt. “Your nani is in the church. Do not worry for her. Remember? She is with God now.” Rhonwellt tousled Ernulf’s hair and smiled at him. “Now, be a good lad and eat your bread and drink your cider.”
Ciaran moved nearer to the fire, rubbing his hands together over the flames.
“What do we do now, Brother Rhonwellt?”
“There is nothing to be done until the morrow. Then we shall see her body prepared for burial.”
“Surely, we cannot prepare the body of a woman, Brother,” protested Ciaran.
“No, we cannot,” agreed Rhonwellt. “At first light, you shall go fetch Esyllt and I shall set her to the task.”
“The old witch?” said Ciaran, horror spreading across his face. “Certainly not for a Christian woman.”
“What makes you so certain that Myfanwy was a Christian?”
“Well, we know Esyllt is not Christian.”
“You are right,” said Rhonwellt, “she is not. But, Esyllt is wise and well respected in these parts. The fact she clings to the old ways does not make her a witch.”
“But, brother, the Church says anyone like her who is not Christian is a witch.”
“The church teaches many things, lad, but not exactly that. And, my heart tells me Esyllt is a good woman, Christian or not.”
“Brother Rhonwellt, why do you always challenge the ways of the Church?”
“The state of the world says it needs challenging.”
“Prior Alwyn says the state of the world is the result of it being challenged,” replied Ciaran.
“Perhaps. However, the Church is far too powerful to worry about any provocation from a lowly priest like me.”
“If that were true, Brother,” replied Ciaran, “why are they burning so many heretics?”
Rhonwellt was silent for a moment. “We have other matters to worry on at present, such as, who is Ernulf and why did Myfanwy bring him here. Esyllt and Myfanwy have a similar look. It would be worth the asking whether Myfanwy is known to her.”
Turning their attention to Ernulf, they found the boy curled up on the bench, lulled into sleep by the warmth of the fire, the half-eaten bread still clutched in his hand.
“Assist me, lad, and let us see what is underneath these rags,” said Rhonwellt. “They are wet and they smell.” The monks proceeded to unwrap the child from his tattered coverings and cast them aside.
“God’s teeth! What have we here?” said Rhonwellt, startled.
Ciaran silently formed his mouth into a large oval.
Ernulf was dressed in a murrey tunic of linen and dark green hose. On his feet were well- made calf slippers. His blonde hair was oily, and his face was dirty. However, not the accumulated grime of weeks without washing, but surface grime recently applied.
“Someone has gone to great lengths to disguise our Ernulf,” Ciaran observed.
“Why would anyone do that, Brother Rhonwellt?” “I do not know.” Why, indeed?
Ciaran took the bread from Ernulf’s hand. Reaching for a cloth, he cleaned the sleeping child’s face. “Do you think we shall find Myfanwy is finely dressed underneath her rags as well?”
“I do not,” replied Rhonwellt, putting more peat on the fire. “A woman of means, unused to work, could not have carried him far, especially if she were dying. And her hands are not those of an idle woman. Myfanwy was clearly in service.”
“Why do you say she carried him, brother?”
“Did you not see the sling wrapped around her? Ernulf was in it when you pulled him from beneath her body. That is how he became trapped there. I think we shall find that Myfanwy was used to hard work and was of a more common lineage.”
“Then she stole the child?” said Ciaran. Turning to Rhonwellt he scrunched his face in thought. “She stole Ernulf and when she saw she was dying, dumped him here?”
“No, lad. He called her nurse. There was a bond between them. She used the last of her failing strength to see him to safety.”
“How can you be so sure, Brother?” Ciaran asked. “How did she die?”
“I do not know for sure, but will be able to tell more when I can see her body in full light.”
* * *
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