(This serial was inspired by the History, Hauntings, and legends of Worcester Cathedral in England: It was written originally as the inaugural serial of the “42 Genre-Specific Open-Mic-Night,” in Worcestershire. It is affectionately dedicated to the late Leonard Amesbury by his friend, the author.)
“Norseman on the Threshold”
By Glenn James
Part One: “Lupus Rex”
Worcester Cathedral sleeps calmly on the banks of the River Severn, quiet in its golden stone, and basking in the rise and fall of centuries. Little happens nowadays to disturb its contented sleep, as the warlike days when armies laid siege to its demure skirts, and the peaceful river ran red with vanquished causes, are long since past.
In these godless times, it is merely a timeless symbol of the city, striding through the centuries almost absentmindedly, so much a part of the landscape it’s hardly even registered properly by most people looking right at it locally.
But deep inside it’s wall’s and fabric, in between its foundations, crypts, and long forgotten chambers, deeds done with less than a valiant heart fester resentfully still in secret. The dark cloisters at night, when the last tourists and choristers have gone home are not “unpopulated”. They are far from empty in any conventional sense, and their paths are walked in silence by those who would not be seen.
Amongst those privileged to move in the right circles, this is an open secret. Like many a castle or great house of God, the cathedral has it’s dark Oubliettes, which those with occult insight prefer to remain buried back in the obscure mists of history. But like any sleeping giant, the soul of the great building is occasionally troubled in its dreams, particularly when one of them tries to come true…
It’s particularly painful when one of them manages it….
Ronnie Trancey and his daughter Tracey, however, know better to believe this load of old codswallop.
It’s an old trick of a wealthy landed institution or Stately home to circulate a good ghost story or myth, in order to keep away any “opportunistic” visitors with an acquisitive streak, who might call unannounced after dark.
The family held little truck with that sort of thing, and had bust into many a “haunted” crib, when all was safely quiet, and taken whatever they wanted without any restraining hand from beyond the grave intervening.
So far, anyway.
They had loaded vans before now, on the blackest moonless nights in the most ancient of overgrown graveyards, with no spine-chilling experiences to speak of.
They had knocked over Hagley Hall, and picked and chosen from the most refined addressed in the county with impunity. Yeah, they were not unknown to the courts, but Ronnie had always been more frightened of old Judge Mott than anything walking in shadow after dark.
And now, after having found an ideal hiding place for themselves behind the exhibitions stands of school art show in the cloisters, the two of them were preparing to venture into ecclesiastical circles. Having got themselves locked in unobtrusively, the cathedral was ripe for the pickings.
The place was filled with moonlight, as God unaccountably held a torch for them in their dishonourable work. The whole building was filled with shadows and odd magnified sounds in the quietness of the night…..
But the night was as yet still an adolescent, and Ronnie Trancey was nothing if not thorough. He and his daughter made their way methodically around the great building, oblivious of any perusing shadows and sacrosanct atmosphere, loudly discussing the relative merits and sellable value of relics, fixtures, and fittings, and any interesting metalwork as if it were so much scrap.
They noted all this down in a Blackberry, and the information went straight to Ronnie’s son, and a strapping great friend, who were waiting at the end of theCathedralGardenswith a ladder, some rope, and a fast little flat bed boat.
It was late enough for the cathedrals spot lights to be turned off, and the path along the river was as quiet as the grave. All they needed to do was open one of the great East Doors, and carry the booty down the path to the river wall, as the moon flitted behind its train of perusing ragged cloud. Then literally over the wall with it, and away in the boat. They could then safely unload upstream with no problem at all at their little van. Bobs your uncle, job done.
The river path was pitch dark at this time of night, and cordoned off for a substantial length or its way along the back of the Cathedral, due to being re-pathed…… There was no-one around except for the occasional nervous cottager, and no lighting to worry about.
Ronnie could hardly bottle down his glee, as it seemed to him the perfect crime. It was such an obvious line of approach, using the river to knock over the Cathedral. Why hadn’t anyone done it before, that’s what he couldn’t understand!
What he didn’t know was that it HAD been done before, quite often, a very long time ago, and forces set in motion to protect the building were waking from a long hibernation. Dusty eyelids were fluttering in the dark…..
So Ronnie and Tracey, in happy ignorance, made their shopping list with methodical thoroughness, under the stern glare of dazzling stained glass angels, whose colours were turned into bewitching pre Raphaelite canvases by the moonlight. (They contemplated how to lever these out and flog them at Notting Hill Market inLondon.) Baleful Saints and stone worthies from a thousand years of Cathedral history stood furious in their marble, unable to intervene or protest aloud, as the two contemplated how much their decapitated heads would fetch from collectors. Their beseeching hands made dandy ashtrays for fag-ends, and Tracey cheerfully stuck nub ends between their mute and frozen lips.
The atmosphere of the building was completely lost on both of them, as they moved through the great colonnades of stone arches painted by moonlit glances, and the deeper corners flooded with labyrinths of sucking shadows. They might as well have been burgling Sainsbury’s.
But in his way Ronnie was building up a sense of occasion and excitement. He had a plan he had told Tracey nothing about.
With something of a flourish he fixed his eye on the high alter, and slapping his daughter on the back he jerked his head in that direction, and led her off towards his secret project.
This was a bit of larceny he really had his heart set on, and Ronnie took her by the hand and led her down towards the forbidding, grim, black-purbeck marble tomb of the late King John.
Spitting on his hands and rubbing them together, Ronnie selected his lucky crowbar, and with a vicious grin, set about trying to pry open a corner of the late Kings sarcophagus.
When she saw him do this, Tracey burst out laughing. Her father would normally stop at nothing in the face of financial gain, and she knew he was afraid of nothing, living or dead, but even she was shocked into outraged laughter that he was going to pluck the rings from the dead fingers of the worst of the Plantagenet’s.
Ronnie got down to work in silence, and the light of the moon, emerging again from it’s attendant cloud, fell strangely on the dead kings effigy. The odd luminescence gave him an almost lifelike appearance, in a way that seemed very unnatural.
Tracey felt oddly uncomfortable about this, and lighting a fag, hitched herself up on top of the tomb. She sat herself cross legged on top of the king, tweaking his broken nose as she did so, and sat flipping through her text messages as her father worked. She tried to tell herself that he didn’t look like he was going to move, as he really did look very strange, and she half watched the King’s face over the top of her Bluetooth to try and soothe an uncharacteristic unease. She wasn’t scared, but none of the family had ever dared break into a Royal tomb before, and she was aware of a certain sense of discomfort. She patted John again, and whispered, “Don’t worry, you can get it back off the insurance…”
Just then, Ronnie gave a little cry of triumph, and there was a grinding protects of old stone, as one of the big marble panels with its shield of Plantagenet leopards began to move.
There was quite a loud bang inside the tomb, and an odd smell, like dried almonds, and old dirty dogs fur. From her perch, Tracey saw her father straighten up for a second, and then lean forward into the gap with his torch.
There was seconds pause as he did so, and she called down, “Wake up Jonnie, School in the morning!”
Her father didn’t reply, but seemed to hunch further forward into the hole.
Then there was a sharp intake of breath, and a bang as if he had hit his head. She felt the impact underneath her through the stone.
Tracey caught her breath, “Dad?”
Ronnie cried out, and tried to throw himself backwards, hands on either side of the aperture, scrambling for a hold.
Tracey climbed across the tomb to help, and saw him a break away from something, pulling his head free of the opening. There were livid scratches on his face and his eyes were wild. But before she could get down, or reach him, or even say anything, something shot out of the hole and grabbed her father by the throat.
It moved like lightening, (a hand?), covered in rags and trailing hair. She saw the nails dig deep into his skin, and Ronnie, with one fast look up at her with mad eyes, was yanked bodily into the dark hole in front of him.
Tracey sat very still for a long moment, not daring to breathe.
The whole place was thunderously quiet, and she sat very still, feeling the ragged tear of her lungs trying to breathe quietly, as the cold sweat of open fear ran riot all over her body. Her throat was so tight it felt like it was choking her.
It took her a terrible effort to speak, and she didn’t want to: “Dad?”
There was no reply, “Dad?” she said a bit louder.
Then there was a brief scuffling from below, and then all was still.
“Dad, stop buggering about!”
Nothing but silence, and the knowledge that there was an ominous open gap right underneath her, where her father had disappeared….
Tracey was a brave girl at heart, and she knew she couldn’t sit there all night. Very carefully she climbed across the tomb, watching the floor like a hawk, and expecting that filthy hand to appear over the side and snatch at her any moment. Carefully she moved to the farthest corner of the tomb, well away from the hole, and trying to hold back wrenching sobs, she gingerly lowered herself to the ground.
The 6 metre walk around the tomb was the longest one she had ever undertaken in her life. Her footsteps echoed horribly, and tears quietly flowed unbidden down her face. Tracey carefully picked up her father’s torch, and approaching the hole with shaking hands, turned on the light….
She would never reveal exactly what she saw then, but the sight gave rise to such a scream that it echoed throughout the building, and frightened all the sleeping pigeons from the eaves.
Tracey ran the length of the cathedral to the great East doors, and flung herself at the great iron door handles. She went to tear them open with her bare hands.
But the instant she touched them, a flare of green light, like St. Elmo’s fire surrounded her body, and she fell unconscious to the ground.
In the ensuing silence, the panel in the side of the great tomb quietly closed back into place, as if nothing had happened. Beside Ronnie’s scattered tools, lying on the tiled floor, there was a small book, bound in very curious skin and deeply embossed.
This glowed for a while with the same green light.
And although no-one was around to see it, in the silence of the cathedral Library, one of its more grisly relics, a piece of flayed human skin, also glowed with the same sinister green light for a very long time. The light fluctuated, almost as if it was throbbing with a new found energy.
This sight might have acted as a warning, if only someone had been there to see it.
End of Part One
Part Two titled “Books and Bindings”