The Unseen Path – Part Forty One

1642again, Going Postal

Gigs were ferrying people to the island, their small sizes requiring Gillian and Petroc to go separately from them.  The previous day and night’s cold front had pushed on inland, leaving a cool but fine day before the arrival of the next front, coming in from the Atlantic to the west; fortunately, the bay water remained calm.  On landing they were directed to the Abbey refectory, which was warmed by two large blazing stoves, to refresh until all the guests from the mainland had arrived.

Just before noon they were all led through into the Abbey church where they were sat on temporary benches arranged either side of the nave facing the altar, a low carpeted dais before it holding a small oak throne and chair.  Their party filled an entire bench near the front, Sally and Josey sat down on the aisle end looking around as the Abbey filled with people; an expectant silence replacing the previous chattering hubbub.

Iltud had gone to the front to join the rest of the Council who had their own benches situated either side of the low platform. The Seigneurs, including Mark, dressed in some sort of antique Roman ceremonial cavalry armour on top of blue tunics and leggings, seated among them.

Gillian sat in the front row with her husband, looking extremely nervous.  What was going on with her, she had already sworn her oath surely?

As the noon day bell’s last chime was fading into silence, the choir, processing from the back of the nave, raised their voices in Latin plainsong.

Sally realised there was no organ or other musical instrument within the Abbey, all the music was the product of the human voice.  Two dozen in total passed them, so they had clearly brought reinforcements from the mainland.  The Abbot came behind the choir followed, in turn, by a very old man with white beard and long robe bearing a simple hazel staff, next came an ageing but clearly still active man in robes of purple, a sword by his side, white grey beard and shortish, military looking hair under a slim gold circlet, and finally the High Steward wielding a staff of office.

She turned to Martha as to ask the identity of the old man and if this were the Duke, but was waved into silence.

The new entrants sat down, followed by the congregation, the Duke, for it must be him, on the throne, the old man on the chair with the Abbot and High Steward remaining standing.  Nothing was said until the Abbot welcomed everyone in three languages, the choir then breaking into a psalm in Latin.  And so it continued, hymns and psalms sung by the choir in Latin and Brythonic interspersed with readings from the Gospel of St Mark and prayers in Brythonic and English until forty minutes later the singing subsided, whence the High Steward came forward to address the congregation, welcoming the new arrivals of the last year and inviting them forward to the front of the platform to begin the oath swearing.

Sally looked about, she was there with Josey holding her hand, silently wondering, hushed by the formality of the occasion for once, and about a dozen (she later learned fourteen) other arrivals since the previous year’s ceremony.  Most were middle-aged or older, men and women, but about a third were younger, teenagers or early twenties she guessed, but no other children.  All looked nervous; scared of making fools of themselves.  Their names were read out in turn in Brythonic and English, where they were staying, where they were from, their occupations.  Each, other than Josey, was asked in turn to kneel and read the oath in three languages before the ceremony moved on to the next.  It didn’t take long, around 30 minutes or so, she estimated.

The old Duke then rose to his feet and gave, in Brythonic, a welcome to his new subjects and co-workers, which was translated by the Abbot.  As they went back to their benches they were each given a small vellum book, beautifully hand illustrated, with their name, their date of arrival and copies of the oath in the three languages.

It also contained the first verse of St John’s Gospel, the Creed and Lord’s Prayer, again in three languages.  Martha later explained that they were the Brothers’ welcome gifts to all new citizens and each took a calligrapher a week to prepare.

As she sat down, she noticed that Gillian was making her way to the front of the dais where she knelt with nine other people, all but her young or fit looking middle-aged men.  The High Steward introduced them all, Gillian last, explaining in the three languages that they had all demonstrated valuable skills and dedication in the service of the Duchy, were worthy of the highest trust and had been selected to be ‘touched’ so they could serve the Duchy in the outside if and when required.  Sally looked at Martha, who was equally astonished at Gillian’s inclusion, and then at Petroc, whose face was stony.

This time the Duke got up, followed by the old man, the High Steward, Abbot and two Brothers.  One of the Brothers was carrying a cloth covered tray holding two golden vessels, the other a golden casket, all approached the first kneeling man.

Sally watched intently.  The Duke had unsheathed his sword and placed it before the first man to kiss, then the next and so on until he arrived at Gillian; he then stepped back and held it before him, its dull steel blade notched from use.  The High Steward did the same with a cavalry lance with a plain white banner hanging down with what looked like Greek chi-rho lettering on it.  Next the Abbot, followed by the first Brother, anointed each in turn on the forehead, firstly with water and then with oil.  Finally came the second Brother and the old man, each kneeling celebrant placed one hand on the casket, the other on an ancient looking scroll wrapped in crimson silk held by the old man, and then recited a different oath in Latin only, Gillian being the last.  The kneeling supplicants were then dismissed back to their seats in the nave.

It looked as if business were done, the congregation’s hubbub rose again until the Abbot was heard requesting silence, which rippled backwards through the Abbey until all was still.  He came down from the dais and approached their bench smiling at Narin, holding out his hand for her to accompany him; she was frozen in shock and bewilderment. Sam started rising to his feet to argue, but was motioned down again by Martha, who looked equally surprised.

The Abbot, smiling still, beckoned her again, and then to Martha to accompany her.  The girl relaxed, recognising his garb as similar to that of Brother Peran and stood up to accompany him and Martha back to the platform where she stood, looking so small in her riot of richly coloured Byzantine silks.  Martha, standing beside her gestured to her to kneel but the Abbot countermanded her with a shake of his head, whispering an enquiry to her if she had the girl’s oath to hand.  She produced it.  He smiled, and then the touching ceremony started again, the sword kiss, the lance kiss, the double anointing, but just one hand on the casket, no scroll this time.  Martha spelled out the words slowly, one by one, nodding to the girl to repeat them.

What she made of them no one knew; they held their collective breath, some she clearly had gained a little familiarity with, others were still strange to her and her faltering tongue slowly meandered through them, the Abbot smiling encouragement all the while until she finished.  He and the old man laid hands on her head and appeared to pray over her briefly, then he smiled once more and motioned Martha to lead her back to the bench, while the choir sang a final psalm and the procession reformed and headed back down the aisle and out of the eastern door.

A collective silence had held the entire congregation in thrall, broken only by the announcement by one of the Brothers from the open door that all oath swearers and their accompanying guests were invited to back to the refectory for dinner.  As they made their way there, Sally realised that people were astonished that Narin had been ‘touched’ in that way, a radical departure from tradition; all were dumb-founded.

Entering, they found the room laid out with two long rows of trestle tables with another at the end where the Duke and his officials were taking their places.  Purple and red silk hangings, again of what must be Byzantine origin, lined the walls now and similar cloths of linen this time covered the tables, along with glassware, crockery, cutlery, flagons of wine, water, cider and beer, and small loaves of bread.  They were motioned to their seats and silence fell again as the Abbot relayed grace in Latin and then proposed toasts, to their new fellow compatriots, those entrusted to go outside, the Duke’s continued long life and health, their cause and finally to the little lost lamb that had been found and brought back to them.  Looking at Narin with tears in his eyes, he asked that God might return her safely to her family and homeland.  Sally couldn’t help thinking that he would have made the softest father she had ever known, and then noticed Sam’s unhappy expression, and looked at Martha confirming that she had seen it too.

Lent had passed and consequently the dinner seemed to be a never-ending series of dishes, with no defined courses, consisting of meats, fish, shellfish, winter vegetables, cheeses, cakes and even preserved exotic fruits brought in by sea, apparently the most sought-after delicacies of all those presented.   After the formality of the occasion in the Abbey it was delightfully informal, people just getting up and going to speak to others sat elsewhere, but, she noticed, no one approached the high table where it appeared that far more business-like discussions were underway.

After about two hours, people started drifting away as the serving staff began clearing; it seemed that the event had finished, and the Duke and his officials were heading up to the fort with a handful of his guards and servants.  However, Abbot Winwaloe was there, waiting outside the door for them when they emerged into the daylight, inviting them to one side away from the crush of the departing guests.

“Apologies, apologies for the surprise at the end, but there was no time to warn you, the young girl.  It was only finally decided by the Duke just before the service that the girl, Narin,” he smiled at her, “should receive the touch so she can leave for home, if God provides, before next Easter.  We changed the ceremony a little, absenting the swearing on the Gospel of St Mark as we believe her not of the faith, but retaining the other things for fear that the touch would be invalidated if we left out too much.  I had sent you a simple oath in case I was able to persuade my colleagues to make this exception, but it was only this morning that the Duke himself agreed: I had not wanted to raise false hopes by telling you what I intended beforehand.  It is the Lord’s Will I told them, this young man risked his life to free her from bondage,” smiling at Sam, “how could we prevent her safe passage to those she loves?  It would be sinful; laws are not made to frustrate the doing of good.”

His face was so sincere that even Sam felt compelled to embrace him in thanks.

“Father, what were those relics she swore on?”

“Ah, Mistress Bowson, that is one of the questions I had expected you to ask me on your last visit!  The sword is the Duke’ own, a symbol of his sovereignty, the lance is that of Constantine the Great himself that he carried at the battle of the Milvian Bridge outside the gates of Rome.  It was sent to St Josephs’ Basilica by its patron, his mother the Empress Helena.  The oil and water are sacramental and from the Abbey, representing divine majesty and baptism, and the casket contains the bones of St Joseph, they are normally held in a locked crypt beneath the Basilica.  The Gospel you already know.”

Before she could scoff or even ask a further question, he had moved on to Narin.  “And now my dear child, you will have all our heartfelt prayers for a safe return home, this is a little going away present from the Brothers and a sentimental old man,” handing over a small leather purse to the girl, blessing her and then heading off before turning back and saying, “And now I am late for business with the Duke, and so will you be for your train home, so be off!”

“Where’s Iltud, Martha?  Isn’t he coming back with us?”

“No Sally, he’s got late business with the Council tonight and will remain in the fort, returning later tomorrow.  Now let’s obey the Abbot one further time.”

It was only later, after they had just made the last train home, that Narin had opened the purse.  Within were twenty golden Sovereigns of recent years, some mixed silver coins of other nationalities, a small golden Celtic cross on a chain and a letter for Sally.  ‘My dear lady, the gold is for the girl to help her on her way home and the cross is a reminder of God’s love for her.  You will get your opportunity to ask yet more questions as you will soon be asked to meet the Council again.  May He bless you all.’

She was in tears, passing it to the others.  “Such love,” said Martha, “such a good soul.”

Narin, finally catching up, broke into sobs as well, Sam just looked embarrassed.  Gillian, who was further down the carriage, headed their way.  “Is anything wrong?” she said.

“Nothing,” sniffed Martha, handing her the note, “what do you think of that?”

The doctor, sitting down with them read it and looked up.

“Nothing surprises me about this place anymore, other than the unrelenting saintliness of that man, Brother Winwaloe.  I remember how he was with me when I first arrived.  He had just been made Abbot himself, but nothing was too much trouble; I think it was he more than the fact of the place itself that made me start to believe.”

“Gillian?”  Sally had recovered herself and was not going to miss the opportunity.  “I thought you didn’t want to ever go back into the outside, so why were you there being touched?”

“It’s true; I don’t want to, Petroc doesn’t want me to either.”  She looked anxiously down the passenger aisle at her husband who smiled back.  “But I was asked only earlier this week, told there was no one else, with what’s now going on outside they need a doctor in case one of our boys get hurt. They could hardly take them to a hospital…  Someone who knows Logres, what it’s like, won’t panic.  So, I had to say yes, I owe them that.  But I’ll only go when needed, in emergencies, and not too deep in.”

“So, what are they up to there?”

“I can’t tell you and I don’t know much, just enough they said, but it’s dangerous.”

Sam was sitting stony faced in case he was asked next; he had already had to bat this sort of question away several times himself.

She changed her angle of questioning.

“What about what the Abbot said about those relics at the touching, that can’t be true can it; you’re a scientist after all?”

“If someone had told you a month ago, less, that there was a hidden British enclave in twenty first century England under some sort of special protection, that it was trading with a similarly hidden Byzantine refuge in the Mediterranean, making a living by smuggling into Britain, sending parties in and infiltrating the state, welcoming lost souls like me, what would you have said?  It’s not science, its fact.  You can’t escape it.  So, if the Abbot, who is probably one of the most decent men you could ever hope to meet, tells you those things are true, then you’d need a pretty damn good reason to disbelieve him.  It took me three months to realise that, and other things about this place, I only hope its sooner and less painful for you than for me.”

© 1642again 2018

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