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The Sisterhood – Curse of Abbot Hewitt

By Annette Siketa




Copyright 2017 by Annette Siketa.



No part of this book may be reproduced or manipulated in any manner whatsoever, without the express permission of the author.



Distributed by Smashwords.



Prologue

1 - May Day, 1536

II – Death, and More Death

III – The Malediction

IV - The Execution




Part One – May Day, 1620

Chapter 1 – Before Sunrise

Chapter 2 – Early Morning

Chapter 3 – Mid Morning

Chapter 4 - Midday

Chapter 5 – Early Afternoon

Chapter 6 – Mid Afternoon

Chapter 7 – Late Afternoon

Chapter 8 – Early Evening

Chapter 9 – Midnight




Part Two – Thornley and Beyond

Chapter 10 – An Unexpected Guest

Chapter 11 - The Devil’s Gorge

Chapter 12 – Bess Whittaker

Chapter 13 - The Legend of Wolfdene

Chapter 14 – The Boundary

Chapter 15 – A Matter of Opinion

Chapter 16 – The Siege

Chapter 17 - Kidnapped

Chapter 18 – Wolfdene

Chapter 19 - Treachery

Chapter 20 - The Phantom Monk

Chapter 21 – The Second Malediction




Part Three - Aftermath

Chapter 22 – Craxton Hall

Chapter 23 – Wedding Eve

Chapter 24 - Stewart Tower

Chapter 25 – Royal Prerogative

Chapter 26 - The Feast

Chapter 27 – Behind the Scenes

Chapter 28 - The Masque of Death

Chapter 29 - One Grave




A little something extra

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About Me





Prologue



1 - May Day, 1536




Father Hewitt stood in the great archway that was the main entrance to the abbey. The heavy, iron-studded wooden gates had been opened a little earlier, and now, with his belly full of breakfast and the weariness of the previous evening driven from his bones, his humour and spirit were completely restored.

Adding to his contentment was the fact that it was May Day, and that the village of Holton – of which the Father was inordinately proud, was a kaleidoscope of colour. Everything from horses to horseshoes had been decorated in all manner of bunting. Even the pigs in a nearby sty had received a good scrubbing.

Situated on a rise, the abbey commanded a spectacular view of the countryside, of the hamlets and cottages and gently grazing sheep, of the spectacular Thornley Forest and its many waterways in the distance, where a man could catch a trout for his supper as easily as he could snare a rabbit.

“If we had prayed for a month,” said Father Eastgate, blinking slightly as he emerged from the shadows of the abbey into the daylight, “I don’t think we could have been granted better weather. It’s on days like these that God allows us to forget our troubles and see only the good in the world," and as though to emphasise the point, a young girl aged about ten, her hair woven with wild flowers, bounded up to them.

“Father Hewitt,” she said excitedly, “Lexy has been delivered of her puppies and papa said I could keep one. Would you bless it for me?”

“Another litter? Goodness me, that terrier of yours should be declared a manufacturer."

The girl looked puzzled. Nevertheless, she held out a ball of silky black fur. Father Hewitt closed his eyes, muttered a reverent ‘bless you’, and touched the dog with his weather-beaten hand.

The animal evinced a pitiful whine. Father Hewitt stroked the tiny head. “I think you should return it to its mother. It’s far too young to be weened as yet."

“Yes, Father,” said the girl as she skipped away. “Thank you."

Father Eastgate chuckled. “The dog will die of love before starvation."

Father Hewitt cast his eyes skywards. Such was his countenance that his next words might have been a prayer. “Would that we all die that way."

The monks stood quietly for a moment or two, and then Father Eastgate’s expression changed from contentment to disapproval. “But that kind of love will never be sanctioned." He pointed to a young couple behind a makeshift pie stall who, clearly thinking themselves out of sight, were kissing and fondling each other.

“Oh, don’t be so severe, it’s just high-jinks," said Hewitt mildly, but as he turned his gaze away from the canoodling couple, he added silently, ‘and Lord knows we’ll all need plenty of them before too long’.



In the early 1530’s, Henry VIII had instituted a series of acts and measures to reform the religiosity. There were numerous reasons for this, but in the minds of the people they boiled down to two. Firstly, that some denominations attracted more loyalty and devotion than the Crown, which Henry’s massive ego and stomach could not digest. Secondly, with their extensive lands and constant stream of tides and tributes, many churches were exceedingly rich, and Henry wanted money to pay for his seemingly unquenchable ‘on again off again’ war with France.

The ecclesiastics, although pledging allegiance to the King, had vowed to adhere to Papal supremacy, and to restore religious establishments and lands to their hitherto ejected possessors. But, the more the churches baulked at the reforms, the more Henry had tightened his grip, so that in time, the prolific desecration of sacred structures, the destruction of shrines and images long venerated, the ejection of ecclesiastics renowned for their hospitality, piety, and learning, had done much to unsettle the country.

The examining commissioners, headed by the hated Thomas Cromwell, were treated with barely disguised contempt, especially in the North, where skirmishes and attacks on Royalist troops and sympathisers were not uncommon.

“By the way,” said Father Eastgate, “a messenger brought some news last night while you were out. Except for a list of certain men, the King will pardon all insurgents provided they desist at once."

“How generous of him,” said Hewitt sarcastically. "And did he say anything about reparation? No, of course he didn’t, and I don’t need divine intervention to know whose name heads the list."

Father Eastgate grunted. “And I doubt mine is near the bottom, nor that of Father Haydock either."

"The King is an unrelenting tyrant. None of his supposed terms are acceptable, and he knows it. Look at these people. Is not our abbey smitten with poverty because of Royal greed? Have not the homeless, whom we once fed and sheltered, gone away hungry and without rest? Have not the sick, whom we would have attended, died miserable deaths in fields and hedgerows?

"Mark my words, if the rapacious designs of the King and his henchmen are allowed to continue, poverty will not be confined simply to the Church. We are being plundered under the guise of reform to fill the King’s coffers, and though I do not necessarily wish it, it will be the Crown that suffers more in the end."

"And with my Lord of Leeds, our so-called protector, in accord with the King’s purpose, what hope have we?”

“Very little I’m afraid."

“Perhaps we should ask Einyon Dymock to intercede on our behalf. He claims to have the answers."

"Einyon Dymock?” Father Hewitt was momentarily puzzled. He prided himself on knowing every family within his parish. However, such was royal inflexibility, that demands on the abbey’s meagre resources had been steadily increasing, and as a consequence, the prelate had had little time to acquaint himself with recent arrivals in the area. “Ah, you mean our so-called warlock. He who allegedly has a witch for a wife."

"The very same, though I concede that his wife, Bess, is too young and pretty to be a witch."

“I have not had an opportunity to speak to either. What manner of man is Dymock?"

"A paradox. His appearance matches his reputation, and yet he is very intelligent, skilled in the use of herbs and potions, and can speak and write well when he chooses. I have approached him several times about his unchristened child, but he is reluctant to have it baptised, though his wife is eager enough."

He had sounded rather disappointed, as though he’d lost a threepenny bit and only found a farthing. Father Hewitt touched his arm. "Don’t be disheartened. I’ll make it a point to speak to him."

"No sooner said than done. He’s over there."

A tall slim man with brown hair turning to grey, was standing near a small open fire on which a peddler was frying sausages. Watching the proceedings and licking his lips, was a large black dog of indeterminate breed.

The alleged warlock turned his head, saw the monks looking at him, and with the dog at his heels, approached. He was closely followed by two men of middle age. The first, Cuthbert Durham, was a broad-shouldered forester, with a healthy complexion and curling brown hair. He was wearing a Lincoln-green tunic and had an eagle feather in his soft felt hat. As this was a festive occasion, he was not carrying his usual implements of axe and bow. Even so, the bone-handled hunting knife thrust into his girdle was exceptionally sharp. The second man, Hal Mcnab, was in leather jerkin and cambric shirt, a drinking horn slung around his shoulders.

“Good morning, Fathers,” said Einyon. “A most pleasant day for a fair."

“It is indeed,” responded the abbot genially.

“Pity it will be thy last." Einyon had spoken so matter-of-factly that he might have been discussing the price of wheat. But rather than being annoyed by the man’s impudence, Father Hewitt was bemused.

“Oh? How so?”

“Because your destruction approaches."

The abbot looked around. “Unless you’re counting wenches, I see no army."

Einyon shrugged. “Mock as you will, but the King will have the last laugh on you and all your kind."

“Heathen!” cried Father Eastgate angrily. “Be gone or…” but his words were lost in a sudden commotion.

Without care for man, woman, or beast, a large troop of horsemen had cantered into the throng. Tables were overturned, food was sent flying, and the people scattered like ants. Terrified out of her wits, the little girl with the flowers in her hair stood frozen to the spot. She was dragged to safety just in time, but not before she dropped the puppy. The girl screamed as the horsemen came to a stop, the tiny creature obscured in a forest of legs and hooves.

Father Hewitt stared at the now pulpy mass on the ground. His eyes were blazing as he walked towards the leading horseman. In the interim, Hal Mcnab had never taken his eyes off Einyon Dymock, whose lips were moving as if in silent prayer. Then, as his own black dog began to follow the abbot, there was a sudden infestation of toads.

In the chaos that followed, nobody except Hal saw the dog prepare to attack. A moment later the animal fell dead, a knife buried in its neck. Hal ran forward, retrieved his weapon, and took off. Incandescent with rage, Einyon whirled around to espy the culprit, but both Hal and Cuthbert were already gone.

Unaware of what had taken place behind him, Father Hewitt glared at the leading horseman. “Sir Henry Stoddard! May you be damned for the damage you have wrought this day."

“Dammed?” Stoddard laughed and turned to the horseman beside him. “You hear that, Master Faulkner? He wears the garb of a priest and so naturally we should fear his wrath."

Faulkner looked at the sky and parodied praying. "God forgive me.” He held up a bejewelled gloved hand. “Ah, but I forget, my Lord of Leeds hath declared that he is to be tried as a traitor. Mayhap he is no longer a priest."

“And deservedly so,” cried Stoddard. “Seize him!” Two halberdiers, their hands sheathed in chain-mail gloves, jumped from their horses and advanced, and amidst loud protestations which quickly changed to cries of horror, punched the defenceless abbot to the ground.




II – Death, and More Death



It was three months later, and a pall of gloom had settled over Holton, a circumstance seemingly reflected throughout the realm. A week after Fathers’ Hewitt, Eastgate, and Haydock had been conveyed to Leeds Castle for examination, Queen Ann Boleyn had been arrested for treason and adultery. After what amounted to a ‘show trial’, her five allwere executed on Tower Hill on the 17th of May, and the Queen herself, four days later inside the Tower on the green. Shortly thereafter, rumours of witchcraft began to circulate.

Catherine of Aragon, the King’s first wife, who had died in January, had been buried at Peterborough Cathedral. At the moment Ann’s head was struck from her body, all the tapers and candles surrounding the former Queen’s tomb went out.

It was also alleged, predominantly by those who had plotted Ann’s downfall, that she was the possessor of a sixth finger, in the form of a second little finger on her right hand, and that she had used witchcraft to ensnare the King.

But any propaganda value that could have been exploited from these circumstances, especially the justification for beheading a Queen, was shattered by the King himself, for barely two weeks after Anne’s ignominious death, he married Jane Seymour.

Changes had also taken place inside the abbey, and like the royal game of musical thrones, not for the better. The abbey had been stripped and ransacked. Many of the statues perched on the parapets had been desecrated, while the flower and vegetable gardens, once so lovingly tended to by the monks, were little more than tangled weeds. In addition, Stoddard’s troops, who had been left behind to guard the abbey, had raided the cellars, and one night in drunken reverie, had made a mighty bonfire of the library. Many valuable books and parchments had been destroyed, as were several outbuildings and most of the main church. Altogether, it was a poor prize for the King.



Hal Mcnab and Cuthbert Durham were two of the many villagers who were watching the approaching procession. Father Hewitt and his co-accused were returning to Holton to be executed. The outcome of their examination and trial, to be ‘hung by the neck until thee be dead’, had more or less been a foregone conclusion, though they had been spared the ignominy of being ‘drawn & quartered’. Father Hewitt had begged that they be allowed to die within the confines of the abbey. The Earl of Leeds had agreed to the request, not caring where the punishment was inflicted. Moreover, he had handed the responsibility to Sir Henry Stoddard, who to judge from the way his eyes had gleamed at the time, relished the task.

“The filthy swine,” said Cuthbert bitterly, glaring at Henry Stoddard with hate-filled eyes. The comment was well- founded, for shortly after the arrest of the priests, the forester’s license to cut and sell wood from the great Thornley Forest, had been revoked in favour of a royalist sympathiser. Deprived of his livelihood and with little money for food, his once healthy complexion was now rather sallow, and his hitherto admired physique had lost much of its tone.

“I tried to leave some beer at the main gate for the abbots,” said Hal, “but one of the guards knocked me on the head with his pike and said that I'd hang with the others if I didn’t go away."

Cuthbert balled his hands into fists. "That we should be ruled by such a King, and nobody dare say a word against him. We can’t stand by and see the Fathers hanged like dogs. Surely we can do something."

"Only if you want to spill your own worthless blood," said a voice from behind. Hal and Cuthbert whirled around. Einyon Dymock grinned at them malevolently and then walked away.

“And he deserves a dagger as well,” said Hal. “Not only has he become very friendly with Stoddard, but when I saw what he did the other night…“ He paused, crossed himself, and spit on the ground.

“What did he do?”

“I went out to try and snare a rabbit for me dinner, and happened to glance through the rear door of his house, which was wide open. He was surrounded by hags, who were sticking pins into a small doll. When they’d finished, he banged his staff on the floor and a big black man emerged from the shadows. I never seen skin that colour before, and damn me if my blood didn’t freeze when he said that the child would be sacrificed at the next meeting.

Cuthbert stiffened. “Child? Did they mean Bess’s daughter?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady. His acquaintanceship with the child and its mother was far more intimate than her husband would have liked.

But Hal’s attention was back on the procession. “Look, there’s Father Hewitt. God preserve us, look at his face! He looks like a corpse already."

Such was the crowd near the abbey that the procession was forced to stop, and though seated and bound to a rail of a cart, Father Hewitt took the opportunity to deliver a benediction.

"Bless you my children. I wish I could spare you the sight of what is to come."

“Don’t worry, Father,” said Hal robustly, “we’ll save you."

"Nay, lad, I implore you to desist. It will avail thee nothing. The enemy is too strong, and there’s been too much blood shed already."

Henry Stoddard, who had been at the head of the procession, whirled his horse around, and escorted by four halberdiers, rode up to the group. “Durham, Mcnab, move away from the traitors or you also will be arrested.”

"No man shall lay hands on me!" Cuthbert stood defiantly. Then, as the guards made to move forward, he punched one in the face and grabbed his pike. “Keep back or I swear I’ll run you through. I am no traitor.”

"Put down thy weapon, Cuthbert," said Father Hewitt quietly. “I know thee are no traitor, even if these sons of Satan do not."

Einyon Dymock pushed his way to the front and bowed to Stoddard. "My lord, allow me to disarm him."

“A challenge?” said the Squire musingly. He looked at Cuthbert. “Do you accept?”

"If anyone deserves to kiss the pike, it’s him!” Then, seeing that Einyon was unarmed, Cuthbert gave the weapon to Hal. "It shall never be said that Cuthbert Durham fought unfairly. Now, touch me if thy dare!"

The fight was over in seconds. With almost superhuman quickness, Einyon sprang forward and grabbed the forester by the throat, and although Cuthbert was no slouch, it soon became apparent that he was waning. Hal Mcnab, fearful that his friend would be strangled to death, poked the wizard with the pike.

Even on his deathbed many years later, Hal could not state with certainty whether the combatants had shifted position, or his aim had been untrue. In either event, instead of discouraging the wizard, the pike sank into Cuthbert’s left side.

As Cuthbert collapsed on the ground, Einyon sprang aside, his clothes sprayed with blood. With an anguished cry, Hal fell to his knees and desperately tried to staunch his friend’s wound. He was dragged away by the soldiers just as a pretty young woman with a babe in her arms, advanced on Einyon.

"What have you done?" she demanded of her husband.

"Nothing. The fool challenged me and was hurt with a pike."

Still holding the child, Bess Dymock knelt beside the inert man and examined the wound. There were tears in her eyes as she wiped her bloody hand on the child’s blanket. "You can save him. I know you can. He does not deserve to die like this."

None-to-gently, Einyon hauled his wife to her feet. “What is your interest in the traitor?” he demanded. “Is he your lover?”

Bess looked at him narrowly. His quick temper and impulsiveness had cost them dearly in the past, and she was not about to let it happen again. "Take care, Einyon. People are already talking about you. Better be known for a healer than a devil."

Cuthbert opened his eyes. "Leave me be. I would rather die than seek thy intervention."

Bess knelt beside him again, her voice soft and imploring. "Listen to me, thou wilt not die if Einyon tends thy wound."

“Never! I know what he is. Where’s Hal?”

Hal was now sporting a cut lip courtesy of the soldiers. He wiped away the blood and grasped his dying friend’s hand. “I am here. Tell me what thou wilst.”

Cuthbert’s breathing was rapid and shallow. “Do not let him touch me,” he begged. “Farewell my friend. I pray God to keep you."

“Enough!” shouted Stoddard, turning his horse towards the abbey again. “I will not tarry with traitors.”

Einyon grabbed his wife and child and hurried away. Hal watched their retreat through tear- filled eyes. “You will die, Einyon Dymock. As God is my witness, you will die."




III – The Malediction



As the procession resumed its sombre journey, Father Hewitt gazed at the fields and meadows, the rich forest teaming with life, the river which dissected the tranquil landscape like a silver snake, and knew he would never see them again. He saw several of his brethren who were now in disguise, their rough brown habits, for safety’s sake, having been replaced by common clothing. Children and adults alike were weeping as the cart trundled past, whilst many others fell to their knees, their lips moving in silent prayer. The devotion of the people, his people, touched him more sharply than the torturous implements at Leeds Castle.

"Bless you," he said, trying to sound bolder than he felt. "Do not weep for me. I bear my cross with resignation. Look to yourselves, and the wolfish councillors who would devour you. Be…"

But he was not allowed to continue. Sensing the mood and animosity of the crowd, Stoddard shouted, "And while doing so, you might remember that he is a traitor and has been justly condemned."

There was an outbreak of murmuring and catcalls, and one old woman bravely yelled, “A pox on you, Henry Stoddard, and your cock-sure friend, Howarth Faulkner.” She was silenced by a guard who struck her across the face.

Though outraged, the abbot did not trust himself to speak. The last thing he wanted was for anyone else to be hurt on his behalf. He suddenly felt impotent, ashamed of his inability to help and protect the people he loved. Then, as the procession stopped for the gates to the abbey to be opened, he saw Einyon Dymock and his wife, the baby held tightly in her arms, standing to the side. This time the abbot did not mince words.

“Einyon Dymock, you killed Cuthbert Durham as surely as if you’d held the pike yourself. The law might countenance your wickedness but I will not," and turning his gaze on Bess, he raised a hand as though to bestow a blessing. “By the holy saints and martyrs, I curse thee and thy child. May all her progeny suffer eternal damnation."

"No!" Bess flung herself at the cart. "Curse me if thou wilt but not my innocent child. I am not like my husband. I do not believe as he does."

“Innocent? Look at its garments. In blood has it been baptised, and through bloody paths shall the course of its progeny be set."

Bess suddenly clutched her chest. "Einyon!” she screamed through agonising pain, “he has done something to my heart. Save me! Save me!” but it was too late.

Einyon only just caught the child as it fell out of its mother’s arms. He turned on the abbot, his face a mask of satanic fury. "Thou hast killed her!"

The abbey gates now open, the procession began to move into the courtyard. "On the contrary,” called Hewitt over his shoulder, “a stronger voice than mine hath spoken. Threaten him if you dare!”



Released from their bonds, the prisoners were led to the chapter house, where Henry Stoddard was already seated in a carved oak chair. Closely watched by the guards, Father Hewitt was extraordinarily calm as he and his companions approached their captor. Nothing could dispel the abbot’s sense of righteousness, especially in regards to the malediction he’d placed on the child.

“By law,” said Stoddard, whose loins, inflamed by jubilation and power, were aching for the caresses of his lover, “I am required to record anything you may wish to say,” and he indicated a short, squat man, sitting in the corner with parchment and quill. Father Hewitt could hardly believe his eyes. Never had he seen a man look more like an ape. “You may speak for the others should they desire it,” added Stoddard, his gaze wandering to Howarth Faulkner, who was sipping a cup of ale and looking bored.

There was a profound silence as the abbot stated, "Though we die penitent, we only wished to free His Majesty from the bonds of false friends and evil counsellors, and to maintain our church."

Father Eastgate was standing with a small wooden cross in his hand, given to him by a man in the crowd. He clutched the relic as he brazenly announced, "Amen to the latter, but as to the former, I cannot in all good conscience acknowledge a man who unashamedly defiles the church."

"Nor I," added Father Haydock bitterly. "I send no felicitations nor will I grovel to the bloody tyrant."

"Remove them!" screeched Stoddard, pointing at the two defiant priests. “Throw them in the cellars.” Four guards stepped forward, two holding each priest roughly by the arms.

“Do not hurt them!" Hewitt turned beseeching eyes on the knight. “They have suffered enough. They speak from fear. Please, they are old men, on that ground alone allow them some dignity. Let them stay in their old rooms. They will not trouble you, I give you my word."

Stoddard’s face softened a little. In truth, Father Eastgate reminded him of his own grandfather. He addressed the first guard. “Give them food and wine and the means by which to wash, but if they give you any trouble, restrain them."

The monks and their guards left the chamber, quickly followed by Howarth Faulkner. Father Hewitt exhaled a sigh of relief. He had won a reprieve for his fellow condemned - albeit a minor one. “Thank you.”

Stoddard called for more refreshments. “Are you hungry?” he asked, handing the abbot a goblet of wine and indicating that he should sit down. Father Hewitt made for his old oak chair and then thought better of it. If he wanted to, the knight could make his last hours very unpleasant.

“Not especially,” he responded, sitting on a stool.

Stoddard smiled to himself. He would have liked nothing better than to hang the miscreants there & then. However, as the scribe was still in the corner and recording proceedings, to flout the law now would be foolish in the extreme.

“I regret that matters have reached this conclusion,” he said, resuming his seat and crossing his legs. “However, I am not without heart. Is there anything I can do for you?”

They both knew that the statement had been uttered as a matter of course. Nevertheless, Father Hewitt sought to take advantage of it. “Yes. Will you see that Cuthbert Durham is properly buried? He has no kin hereabouts. He has a sister, but I know not where she is."

“He is a traitor and deserves no consideration."

“Nonsense. He is no more a traitor than you, and you know it. The same applies to Hal Mcnab." The abbot leaned closer and said earnestly, “The religious whims of the King will tear this country apart. He has become a master of self-delusion and has often bitten the hand that fed him. If you will take the advice of an old man, watch your back.”

Stoddard smiled. “I am grateful for your concern, but rest assured that my back is well-covered. Now, is there anything else?”

“Yes, I would like to conduct a final mass, the people will expect it."

“Not possible. In the eyes of the law thy are no longer a priest."

“But whether priest or commoner, I am entitled to a confessor."

Stoddard nodded as he gestured to a guard. The interview was over. “True. I will arrange it,” and as the abbot was led out of one door, Einyon Dymock slipped in by another.



The abbot was escorted to his old chamber, which after the desecration of the abbey, was remarkably intact. Tired and drained, he fell asleep fully clothed on his bed. A short time later he was awakened by somebody shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes to see Einyon Dymock holding out a cup of water.

Father Hewitt drank thirstily and wiped his mouth on his dusty sleeve. “What are you doing here?”

“My lord Stoddard has appointed me to watch over you."

The abbot could not suppress a groan. He did not relish the prospect of spending his last hours with a murderer. "Would that I could perish before morning."

“And deprive the people of seeing you hang? How very unchristian of you."

“If you can do no more than torment me, then you can leave."

Einyon laughed mockingly. “So you can commune with your god?”

“He’s your God too."

The warlock winced as though he’d been struck. “I will not bandy words with you. I wish to make you an offer."

“I doubt there’s anything you could say that I’d want to hear, but go ahead."

“I take it you value your life."

“Of course."

“How much?”

Father Hewitt stood up and spread his arms. “All I own is that in which I stand. Search me if you like, I have nothing of value."

“On the contrary, you have something that no other man possesses."

“Really? And what is that?”

“The power to lift the malediction."

The abbot resumed his seat, his curiosity aroused. “Thy are, if reports are to be believed, gifted with certain talents of your own. Moreover, since you arrived in Holton, you have not evinced the slightest interest in spiritual comfort. Therefore, why should the malediction trouble you?"

There was a brief pause in which Einyon’s face betrayed some inner turmoil. Indeed, when he next spoke, it was almost as though he was afraid to say the words. “Bess was a good woman. We have roamed the country for the past two years, but no matter where we settled she was soon branded a witch, though she was nothing of the sort. She heeded this little until she discovered she was with child. She begged to settle where we were unknown, and so after the birth, which was long and laboured, we came here, and then…well, suffice to say that the child is in danger. It was Bess’s fervent wish to have it…” He paused again, and this time there was no mistaking his distaste as he finished, “…blessed. If you will remove the malediction, I have it in my power to set you free."

The abbot’s expression became one of alarm. His compassion was as natural as breathing. “Who threatens the child?”

“Someone no power on earth can conquer.”

“Ah, you mean your own particular God. No, thank you. As much as I love life, I value my soul even more. The malediction stands. Besides, it will avail nothing to bless a child conceived and born out of wedlock."

The latter was a guess but it seemed to hit home, for Einyon glared at the priest as if he would strangle him on the spot. "May the devil personally meet you in hell!" he hissed and stormed out of the room.

“Yes,” said Father Hewitt dryly, “he probably will."




IV - The Execution



The following morning, Father Hewitt stood at the window and watched the breaking dawn. A cold, damp drizzle was falling, and the fields and forest in the distance were partially obscured by a low, crawling mist. The abbey seemed shrouded in melancholy, enhanced by the limp royal standard now mounted on the gate, its impotency seeming to reflect the authority it represented.

The expressions of the men and guards moving about in the inner courtyard, were a perfect match for the atmosphere of gloom. So was their clothing. Bright jerkins were dull and sullied, while boots and shoes were caked in mud. Sentinels shivered as they paced the walls, and the extra guards posted at the entrance gate, did what they could to stay warm and dry.

Stoddard and Faulkner were up and ready, and yet they too showed signs of despondency. They paced the makeshift banqueting hall in silence, both men counting the minutes which seemed to pass with painstaking slowness.

Fathers Haydock and Eastgate were in no better state. The boldness that Father Eastgate had exhibited during his interview with Henry Stoddard had evaporated during the night, while Father Haydock, instead of accepting succour from the monk permitted to visit him, had given vent to copious yet pointless lamentations.

Of the condemned men, only Father Hewitt was philosophical. His mental strength had never been stronger, and rather than dreading death, looked upon it as a happy release. He was praying on his knees when a man entered the room, and thinking it some official, was surprised to hear the voice of Hal Mcnab.

"I got leave to visit ye for a minute."

The abbot rose quickly to his feet. “Sir Henry didn’t arrest you?”

“Nah. Gave me a good talking too, but that’s all." Hal drew closer and whispered, “I must be quick. Ye will not greet the hangman."

"I don’t understand."

"Just don’t be affrighted when ye see me next. Both ye and Cuthbert will be avenged,” and without further explanation, Hal exited the room.

Father Hewitt fell to his knees again and sent up a more personal prayer. “Oh Lord, please don’t let him do anything foolish."

Not long after this, a group of bedraggled guards marched into the banqueting hall, their expressions grim and serious. They were closely followed by Hal Mcnab, whose eyes were fixed firmly on the floor.

"Well, what is it?" asked Stoddard impatiently, noticing their unease. "Has anything happened to the prisoners? By God you shall all answer for it if there has."

"Nothing hath happened to them, sir," said the first guard nervously, “but…well, the executioner we brought from Leeds has…fled."

"What! God’s teeth! No doubt this is a delaying tactic until a rescue can be effected. You must procure another hangman at once."

"Sire, it cannot be done, leastways not today."

Stoddard, who had been nursing a goblet of mulled wine, threw it at the wall. There was something ominous about the blood-red liquid as it trickled to the floor, so that he felt compelled to turn his face away.

“Find another man, hangman or not!”

It was the opening Hal had been hoping for. "Sire, yesterday ye accused me of being a traitor. Allow me to prove my loyalty. If ye pay me well and allow me to wear a hood, I’ll do it."

“Ha! You speak of loyalty and reward in the same sentence.”

Hal shrugged. “If you doubt my sincerity, sire, then I will withdraw. But I tell ye now, none hereabouts will hang a churchman, let alone three.”

As Stoddard vacillated, Einyon pushed his way to the front of the milling crowd. "My lord, this man is not to be trusted. He hath no enmity towards the monks, and it was he who murdered my dog the day they were arrested. There is no need to find another executioner. I will do it."

Stoddard raised an eyebrow. "You?” he questioned sceptically, as Hal hastily disappeared, his retreat covered by the many sympathisers present.

"Aye. Last evening, after I had discharged your Lordship’s instructions, I was in a tavern when I overheard the plot to bribe the hangman to go away. Naturally it was my duty to apprise you of the fact and offer my services. Put the matter in my hands and it will be done. Trust me, no man is more eager for the task than I."

Stoddard hesitated again. He didn’t particularly like the man and had no illusions as to his overtures of servitude. By tradition, a hangman was supposed to be anonymous and detached. But then, so Stoddard reasoned, what was so difficult about slipping a noose around a neck? Besides, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, and a nice warm bed and excellent breakfast were far preferable to murky weather and delayed proceedings.

"Be it so." Stoddard addressed the guard. “Go forth with the new executioner and see that all is made ready." Einyon bowed in acknowledgement and walked away, a satisfied smile on his face.



As a final act of degradation, the monks were to be paraded through the streets. However, more as a safeguard than comfort, Stoddard had ordered the men be placed back in the cart, and shortly before eight o’clock, a procession comprising of horsemen in full livery, and a troop of archers with bows at the ready, set forth from the abbey. Behind them was a Fool in a paper mitre, who was waving a painted banner depicting three grotesque figures in monastic garb.

Next came Einyon Dymock, and never had a man looked happier. Now dressed in a leather jerkin and blood-red hose, he whistled as he walked between two hooded assistants, both of whom he’d chosen personally. A band of halberdiers brought up the rear.

As the procession moved down the street, a man dressed in miller's garb, his face obscured by flour and a drooping felt hat, ran beside the cart.

“Father,” said Hal in a low voice, “my scheme failed but I am not deterred. All I need is one chance and Dymock will suffer the same fate as his dog."

"He probably has a charm against knives," replied the abbot, hoping to divert Hal from his purpose.

"Aye, you’re probably right. Therefore, it will need to be something he cannot repulse," and looking extremely thoughtful, Hal melted into the throng.

The procession, after traversing the main street and the village green, returned to the abbey. Although the rain had ceased, leaden clouds threatened a deluge. Stifling a yawn of boredom, Howarth Faulkner watched the proceedings from the inner courtyard. Had the squire not ordered him to attend as a witness, he would have stayed indoors and bedded a wench, or better yet, a willing young lad.

“Hurry up,” he drawled to no one in particular. “The rain is ruining my new boots."

The monks were ordered out of the cart. It was then backed into the archway, to which three nooses had been affixed to the crossbeam. The cart was to act as a moving platform. Father Eastgate was the first to die. He mounted the cart again and stood with the noose around his neck. Then, as the horses were encouraged to quickly move forward, he was jerked backwards to swing like a puppet. Father Haydock was next, his bowels and bladder releasing their contents as his neck snapped like a twig.

Hewitt and Einyon then mounted the cart, the latter staring into the abbot’s eyes as he fitted the rope into position. “It’s not too late,” he whispered. “You can still save yourself.”

“Too late? For whom? In a few minutes I shall be in the bosom of my Lord. Can you be so certain as to your fate?”

"Retract the malediction and my dagger will save thee."

"Einyon, you don’t seem to understand. I want to die, and if my last act as a priest is to lay a curse, then so be it. Your child will spawn generations of witches and wizards, at least one in every generation, and none will die naturally or at peace. Now, please get on with it, the chilly air is bad for my rheumatism."

"May hell's torments plague thee!”

"Nay," rejoined Hewitt meekly, "thou cannot do harm beyond the grave…but I can.”

“Meaning?” asked Einyon, a note of apprehension in his voice.

Father Hewitt’s last mortal words were, “Remember, Einyon, eternity is a very, very, long time,” and at the same moment he was jerked backwards off the cart, a statue of an angel fell from the parapet.

The author of the deed was not known until Hal Mcnab, on his deathbed many years later, made a full confession, and even then exhibited no remorse. Nevertheless, he was not refused absolution, unlike Einyon Dymock, who was buried without ceremony or prayer.

Not wishing to generate a public shrine to the monks, Stoddard had the men buried near the now defunct chapel at the rear of the abbey, their graves marked by plain stone crosses. And yet one of the occupants seemed unable to rest, for shortly thereafter, a ghostly monk was often seen gliding round the courtyard. The fate of the orphaned child was not known until…




Part One – May Day, 1620



Chapter 1 – Before Sunrise




By 1620, both the abbey and the village had undergone a series of radical changes. Holton had prospered and swollen to the extent that it was now a small town, and was a popular rest stop for those travelling north. One advantage of this, was that news or private messages destined for the area, especially those sent from the capitol, were often conveyed quicker than the post-coach.

Not long after the execution of the monks, Henry Stoddard purchased the abbey from the crown for a pittance, arguing that it would cost a small fortune to render it habitable for a man of his rank, conveniently omitting the fact that it had been his guards who had caused the damage in the first place. Then, on the first anniversary of the executions, and just when extensive renovations to the main buildings were almost complete, the disused chapel had been struck by lightning.

Publicly, Stoddard had dismissed the lightning strike as a whim of the weather. Privately however, he had regarded the calamity as a warning, though whether divine or supernatural he never stated. In either event, he had used the excuse of cost for its non-repair. But, instead of demolishing the ruined chapel, he had made the curious decision to build a ten-foot high wall around it, thus annexing it from the main living area.

Henry Stoddard died in 1551 at the relatively young age of 40, allegedly of fright, and much to the outrage of his two younger brothers, had bequeathed the abbey to his 35-year-old part-time lover, Howarth Faulkner.

Though predominantly homosexual, Faulkner had increased his wealth and position by entering into a dynastic marriage. He had also renovated the abbey to form a stately manor, the ruined chapel being left to fend for itself. His wife had borne him three children – two boys and a girl, and had died shortly after the birth of the latter, allegedly because she had been ‘constantly mounted like a mare’.

Faulkner had died in 1587 at the age of 70, gout being the recorded cause, but in reality, syphilis. Spiteful and heartless to the end, in regards to the abbey, he had stipulated two conditions in his Will. Firstly, that the name of the abbey should never be changed. Secondly, that irrespective of the baptism name, whoever inherited the property should legally be known as Howarth, thereby perpetuating – in his eyes at least, his glorious memory.

But, if at the end, he hoped to cement his place in English history and attract the epithet of ‘gloriana’, he was already some thirty years too late.

Following the deaths of Henry VIII and his only, woe begotten son, Edward VI, Mary Tudor had succeeded to the throne in July 1553. Unfortunately, the dire warning Father Hewitt had uttered seventeen years earlier, ‘religious whims of the King will tear this country apart. He has become a master of self-delusion…’, could have been applied to her reign, for when she died on 17th November 1558, such was her zeal for the Catholic Church and the elimination of so-called ‘heretics’, that she had garnered the unflattering but apt nickname of ‘bloody Mary’.

Having witnessed first-hand the destruction wrought by her half-sister, Elizabeth the 1st had been far more tolerant of religious observances, and to appease the factions, had introduced many new laws and measures. These included prohibiting the playing of tin whistles, games, bear or bull baiting, common feasts and the ringing of non-consecrated bells, on the sabbath and designated ‘holy’ days.

But her successor, who had the double title of James VI of Scotland and James I of England, had been even more liberal. Being possessed of healthy appetites, he repealed the laws, and indeed entire statutes, that impacted on his own love of jollification. Not surprisingly, the traditionalists were outraged, and took every opportunity to proclaim entertainment on a Sunday as blasphemous.

Heedless of this puritanical sanctimony, the old pastimes had been embraced with gusto. Consequently, on the 1st May 1620, many Holton residents had risen before sunrise to scour the surrounding countryside for wild roses, honeysuckle, violets, cowslips, primroses, bluebells, and other wildflowers, in order to decorate houses and stables, the maypole that had been erected on the village green, and the makeshift barge for the May Queen - eighteen- year- old Lavinia Ashmore.



“I suppose you make a passable May Queen, Lavinia,” said Catherine grudgingly. She toyed with her long red hair and waited for the outcry she knew would come.

Born with one shoulder slightly higher than the other, Catherine Ashmore was fourteen and lively, with an alluring quality that needed only age to make it blossom. Unfortunately, her sweet & innocent persona disguised her sharp tongue and cunning mind, which she had no qualms about exercising when she knew she could get away with it.

Nancy Redfern, who was helping with Lavinia’s elaborate costume, shot her a withering look. She would not trust the ‘sly little fox’ as far as she could spit. "You need spectacles. There is not a lass in Yorkshire can hold a candle to Lavinia. You’re just jealous."

"Me? Jealous? Why should I be jealous? When it’s my turn to be May Queen, I’ll be the prettiest this boring town has ever seen."

"Of course you will," said Lavinia affectionately. Sensitive to her sister’s deformity, she halted by a warning look, the jeering laughter that was poised on Nancy’s lips.

But the kindly- meant effort was wasted, for Catherine crossed her arms and said sulkily, “Now you’re making fun of me. People are always making fun of my stupid shoulder and small size. But just you wait. I’ll grow tall and straight in time, straighter than any of you, and prettier too."

“Aye,” said Suzy Worsley, who was weaving ribbons into Lavinia’s luxuriant long black hair, “and maybe ya great gob will grow smaller at the same time."

Catherine narrowed her eyes. “Take care what you say to me or I'll ask grandmother Dymock to quieten you." At the mention of this notorious name, Suzy's countenance became one of unease. Indeed, her hand was actually trembling as she continued to weave ribbons.

"Do not be alarmed, Suzy," said Lavinia. "Our grandmother would never harm anyone. People love to gossip, and anything you’ve heard concerning her is just superstitious nonsense." She turned her head slightly to look at her sister. “I do wish you’d be careful what you say. Its those kind of silly remarks that cause the gossip."

The rebuke seemed to hang in the air, and Suzy, whose heart was sometimes too soft for her own good, was attacked by guilt. "I’m sorry,” she said quietly, tears welling in her eyes, “I didn’t mean to cause trouble."

Nancy patted Suzy’s hand and then glared at Catherine. “Now look what you’ve done,” she chastised. “One of these days, Catherine Ashmore, you’ll go too far.”

"I don’t care! I’m glad she’s upset. It will teach her to mind her manners. She’s no better than she ought to be, none of you are."

“Why you little…“ But Nancy’s remonstrance was curtailed by the opening of the door.

Elizabeth Ashmore would never see forty again. She was hard-faced, quick to judge, and her hooked nose and dark deep-set eyes were far from prepossessing. Her once red hair, which had darkened to a dull brown colour over the years, was peppered with grey, and of her three children, only Catherine and Davy bore any resemblance to her.

“Are you ready?” she asked Lavinia. “Davy has just run up to tell me that your barge and escort are not far away."

Lavinia stood up and spread her arms. The fantasy costume, which was based on a romantic interpretation of Maid Marion as Queen of the Fairies, displayed her beauty to perfection, not that she needed enhancement. A gilt crown was secured to her head by a concoction of combs and fresh flowers, while her yellow dress and red stomacher, were edged with gold fringing and tiny silver bells.

“Well? What do you think?”

"Nice," said Elizabeth mechanically. Not only was her tone devoid of pride, but her next remark clearly demonstrated - if indeed proof was needed, from whence her youngest daughter obtained her sharp tongue. "But don’t ye be getting ahead of yourself. With all the fuss that’ll be made of ye today, I warrant you’ll fancy yourself a real queen."

Lavinia was rather disappointed with the response, but there again, her mother had never been overly affectionate. Determined that nothing should dampen the day, she tried to please her mother by expanding the fantasy.

"If I were a real Queen, I'd make you rich and build you a fine house."

"Thank you," replied Elizabeth, her harsh features momentarily exhibiting a wintry smile.

"And what would you do for me, Lavinia?" asked Catherine.

"I would indulge your every whim. You would only need to ask and it would be yours."

“Huh, she’d never be satisfied," said Elizabeth testily. "She deserves nothing but what she doesn’t get often enough, a good whipping. If her poor father was still alive, he’d know exactly what to do with her."

Mother and daughter glared at each other, and Nancy, to avoid further argument, quickly intervened. “Lavinia, what would you do for yourself?”

“I know what she'd do," said Catherine with a sly smile, "she'd marry Richard Faulkner."

"Catherine!” Lavinia’s face turned as red as her stomacher. Though polite words were the sum total of their acquaintanceship, she thought the young nobleman dashing and handsome, a fact she had naively confided in her sister.

“Enough of this nonsense,” said Elizabeth, never a patient woman. "And you…” she pointed at Catherine, “…hold your tongue or you’ll stay home.”

Just then, the sound of jingling bells and tinny whistles floated through the open window. A troop of fictional characters had stopped outside the house. Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck, were all represented, while the fool and the minstrel were a riot of colour in mannequin costumes. The role of Little John had been well cast. Not only was his true name, John, but he was a gentle giant at over six feet tall. He was also the betrothed of Suzy Worsley, who barely reached the level of his chest.

A hay cart had been converted into a flower-bedecked barge, complete with throne and canopy. Everyone cheered when Lavinia came out of the house, and Robin Hood, after giving her a courtly bow, escorted her to the barge. The procession thus being royally endowed, it set off for the village green, the accompanying crowd singing and dancing and making merry.




Chapter 2 – Early Morning



Catherine turned away from the window and sulked. Minutes earlier, another argument with her mother had seen her confined to the house. There was a discarded posy on a nearby table. Catherine picked it up and with deliberate slowness, as though it would cause intense pain, divested each flower of its petals.

“I hope it rains and spoils their fun," she said sullenly, as a black cat jumped up and settled in her lap. "I wish granny Dymock could make me pretty, and then, do you know what I’d do, Nex?” The cat blinked as though listening.

Catherine was about to resume when a man poked his head through the open window. The cat stood up, arched its back, and darted away, scratching Catherine’s arm in the process.

“Davy!” Catherine would have thrown something at her brother had her stinging arm not prevented it. The skin was now marked with three parallel lines, one of which was oozing drops of blood. “You shouldn’t have frightened poor Nex like that."

Davy Ashmore had fair hair and alluring green eyes. Lean but powerful, his hands were unusually large, an advantage that made him a formidable opponent in a fight, in which he frequently engaged. At 24, he was the eldest of the Ashmore children, and lived in a hut on the edge of Thornley Forest.

“Never mind the cat, it’s a brute anyway. I’ve come to take you to the fair."

“Mother said I can’t go."

“Yes I know, and I’ve just persuaded her otherwise.” He grinned. “So put on your prettiest bonnet and let’s go."



They caught up with the procession just as Robin Hood, who seemed in charge of the frolicsome cavalcade, called a halt. Sir Howarth Faulkner and his guests had just emerged from the abbey.

Despite its dubious and arguably tainted beginnings, the Faulkner family had increased in stature and respect over the years, and the fifth Sir Howarth – two predecessors having died in infancy, was highly regarded in the area. In accordance with the old Will, his twenty-two year old son had also been christened Howarth, but was more commonly known by his middle name of Nicholas.


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