In 865AD Vikings attack the female Bramingham Monastery in the Kingdom of Northumbria. The building is looted with everything of value taken by the pagans, Abbess Jane and senior nuns are slaughtered and the younger nuns abducted into slavery. Maiden Kendra, minding the monastery sheep on the top plateau during the attack survives. Jolene, a postulant nun appears to be the only other survivor.
Kendra followed Jolene along beneath the cliff that towered up in a sheer vertical slope. High above, part of southern monastery wall with its high narrow windows looked like an extension on the cliff. She knew though, that there was a small path and grassed area between the building and the edge that frightened her as a child for there was no fence. She grimaced and continued on behind her friend until they came to a jagged rock. Instead of stepping around it, Jolene turned with her back to the cliff and squeezed behind.
When Kendra followed she found it was a tight squeezed with her back against the cliff and her stomach rubbing the rock in front while she sidestepped. There was no way for her shoulders to fit if she walked in a normal way. Jolene, who was a stride ahead, grinned at her as she wriggled through an even narrower section before disappearing from view.
“I doubt if the Vikings could fit through even if they knew it was here,” Jolene whispered when the area widened out to reveal a tunnel mouth that looked as if it was man-made with vertical walls a little higher than themselves and a triangular ceiling that met in the centre above them. “It goes straight in for twenty strides before we reach the steps.”
“It’s dark ahead,” Kendra whispered.
The darkness was total! Kendra ran one hand along the wall to her left while the other gripped Jolene’s sweaty trembling palm. All other senses were on full alert; the air smelt fresh and slightly salty as it puffed in from the entrance behind, her feet found rough spots before she committed her weight and she felt sure she could even taste the dust that they disturbed.
“The steps,” Jolene whispered as if someone or something could be listening. “They’re narrow so I’ll need to go in front. You can hold my waist if you like.”
The climb was not too difficult with the steps cut squarely into the rock. They just kept going and going and going. She considered herself to be fit but soon her calf muscles ached, her heart began to pound and she wheezed as she gulped for breath. “Stop, Jolene. Let’s get our breath back.”
“It didn’t seem this far last time.” Jolene stopped and Kendra could hear her gasping for air.
“Sit down for a moment.”
They sort of tumbled into each other but managed to sit with Jolene’s legs tucked beside her bottom as she wriggled back against a stone step behind. The slight wind blowing in her face had that distinct aroma of the beach below with salt and spray punctured by the remains of the fire smoke.
“If there is a dragon, he won’t be able to fit in here anyway.” Jolene sounded serious.
“There are no dragons, Jolene. The most dangerous things would be wolves in the forest and they wouldn’t be here.” She was trying to keep her own composure and realised her friend was quite frightened. Even the knees tucked beside her were shaking. She lapsed into silence for a moment while her deep puffing subsided. She squeezed Jolene’s legs and wriggled up to a standing position. As she turned she found she could actually see her friend’s silhouette as a slightly darker shape before her.
‘We’re getting closer. I can see a little now.”
“You’re right,” Jolene cried and with renewed enthusiasm moved ahead at a speed that left Kendra having to really exert herself to keep up.
As well as going upwards the steps curved slightly to the left like a gigantic corkscrew. The light became stronger until the walls and steps could be seen. Suddenly direct sunlight shone ahead. There was a tiny slit of a window with the sunlight pouring in. Before it, was a short landing with even a seat cut in the inside wall.
“I remember this,” Jolene said as they sat together on the narrow seat. “We are three quarters of the way up, now.”
The sunshine was like a friend that helped dry Kendra’s sweaty limbs and clothes. She stood and stepped across to the window. It faced north along the edge of the cliff so the view was of the ocean rather than the beach they had come up from. It was a perfect lookout and had probably been designed for that very purpose. Any boat sailing around the peninsular from either side would be in sight. Now, though, there were only choppy waves with the distant horizon covered in swirling mist. The light faded as clouds covered the sun and a cool breeze blew in the open gap. The storm was heading closer.
“Well, no more longships,” Jolene said.
“Or fishing boats.”
“Not with that storm coming. Mind you, the longships would frighten them away. I wouldn’t want to be a fisherman out there with a longship bearing down on me.”
The rest of the climb was easier with one more window providing light before they came out the top and headed along a tunnel that took a right angle turn away from a third end window. It became dim rather than dark with the stone walls supported by a wooden framework of cross beams. Finally they came to an ancient oaken door with rusty hinges and a massive doorknob.
Jolene turned the doorknob and pulled.
With a squeak of protesting metal, the door swung open and a smell of dusty stale air replaced the salt air in the tunnel. They had reached the dungeon.
“There was a tinder box just inside on a ledge,” Jolene said. “Good, here it is.”
Three sparks punctured the darkness before a tiny morsel of wood ignited and Kendra saw Jolene reach up and a wall lantern burst into blue flame, They were in a stone room rather than corridor with ancient chains and other implements of torture along three walls. The fourth side had a row of grim windowless cells for prisoners. Everything was dust covered and spider webs that stretched between objects gave the place an eerie appearance.
Her immediate relief at having a light to see by was replaced by another thought. “Won’t the Vikings see our torch and come to investigate?” she asked.
“It’s unlikely,” Jolene replied. “They’re even more superstitious than uneducated villagers. Even if they found the doorway leading here I doubt if they’d come down. They believe this is the realm of Loki and Hel.”
“And who are they?”
“Loki is a Viking god of trickery and bad fortune. Hel is his daughter and the goddess of the dead.”
Kendra shuddered. This was not the sort of place to talk about evil gods. It was all old superstition, of course but what if there was some truth in their gods? After all, even the Anglo-Saxons and the Romans who ruled their lands before them had different gods before the King himself had declared that it was blasphemous to worship false gods.
“I know,” Jolene whispered as if she had heard her thoughts. “What if they’re right and the nuns wrong?”
“Don’t say that, Jolene. You’d get twenty lashes if anyone overheard you.”
“They’ve gone, Kendra. Either they’re dead or Viking slaves on that longship.”
“Okay, so where do we go now?”
“There are three stairwells that I know of, one goes to the kitchen, the second goes to the main corridor through the monastery and the third is the one that was for the abbess’s personal use. I think it goes up to her quarters.” Jolene’s confidence waned. “The Vikings could be in any of these places.”
Kendra reached up and unclipped the flaming torch from the wall bracket. “So we’ll go slowly and use our ears. Once we have enough light I’ll put this torch out.”
Jolene sucked on her lip and nodded. Nothing more was said but the thought of being plunged into darkness again was scarier than the possibility of being seen by the Vikings. The dungeon was silent… too quiet. Their footfalls seemed to echo and blackness beyond the flickering torch constantly changed as they almost tiptoed past wooden beams, an occasional table and the inevitable chains bolted to the walls. Old bones in one corner made Jolene gasp and reach for her hand.
“Animal bones,” Kendra muttered. “Probably a horse or bullock.”
They moved on in silence before Jolene stopped beside an archway with steps ahead. “There’s a landing ahead with the three alternative routes I told you about. The one abbess’s one is tucked behind the other two and can easily be missed.”
“We’ll take that one,” Kendra whispered.
The landing was cut out of solid rock and had wall brackets for four torches, two at the front of each stairwell that wound in opposite directions up into darkness. Behind the left stairwell was a narrow door just like a broom cupboard. Jolene walked over and pushed it open to reveal a short corridor that ended at the base of narrow stone steps.
“Interesting,” Kendra said. “How did you find out about it?”
“Pure chance. When we came down here the abbess suddenly appeared to ask what we were doing. God, I was terrified but when we explained about the dare she was almost human, muttered something about being back by afternoon prayers and left. We watched and saw the torch she held go around the main stairs but not up either of them. We followed and found this corridor.”
“But you haven’t gone up the steps?”
“Only half a dozen. It seemed to just keep going. We didn’t want to be caught there by the abbess so came back. That was on our way down so we still had a long way to go. On the way back we were running out of time so just went up the main stairs to the grand corridor.” Jolene grinned. “Just made it back by afternoon prayers to find the abbess waiting for us. Again she almost smiled as we slipped into the chapel.”
“We’ll shut the door behind us and you can lead. Okay?”
Jolene nodded, took the torch and they continued their journey.