With a crack, the cradle is empty
The mother is sobbing
The cradle is empty
With a crack
The sun never shone down by Malkin Towers. That's what everyone said. The place was brown, or grey in the winter, and enveloped in a smell – the smell of death, someone told me. There'd be kids about, dirty ones wearing rags, you'd never go past that way if you could help it because they'd rob you. But the kids weren't the worst thing, even if they were lice ridden. No. The worst thing was those evil demons, witches, murderers, the lot of them. Some in my family met a sticky end at the hands of them, and there’s a dozen families in the valley who could say the same thing.
Even now, even now after the whole place is gone, razed to the ground after the trial, I wouldn't go down that way. I'd rather walk a hundred miles out of my way. Why? Well. They really tried their best to get them, and they got most, and I do feel better for that. But the worst one. The worst one by far. She survived. And I know she did some terrible, terrible things. I saw her. She did them to me, she did them to my family, she even did them to her own heathen kind. And she's out there still, I'm always looking over my shoulder.
Sometimes my grandchildren will say to me, ‘why you thinking about that, Ma, it's been years and she were just a child, what harm could she do?’ And I'll say ‘you just count yourselves lucky you didn't have to live it, if you had you'd know.’ I'm not misremembering, even if I am getting on in years a bit now, because others know it too. I'm not being superstitious, because others know it too. No one goes down that way, by Malkin Towers. She could be anywhere, that one, and if she decided she wanted to get revenge against one of us, well, we wouldn't have a chance. Keep yourself to yourself, that's my advice, don't go near that evil ruin. And for what it's worth, make sure you say your prayers. Although they didn't help us much back then.
With thundering hooves
The fall; an instant, an eternity
A skull cracked like an egg
Like an egg
1537 Whalley, Lancashire
They were collecting sticks for the fire when they saw it. It was a cold day for June, and it would be a cold night.
‘Annie, look!’ Elizabeth gasped, pointing towards the horizon. They had reached the crest of a small hill and, following the line of Elizabeth's arm, Anne could see in the distance smoke billowing towards the iron grey sky. She dropped her armful of sticks.
‘It's the abbey!’ She screamed and set off running down the hill, calling Elizabeth to follow her.
‘Stop, Annie!’ Elizabeth threw her own sticks aside and raced after her. Fire was never a good thing, not that much fire anyway. She ran and ran, jumping over tree roots and low stone walls to try to catch her friend. Anne was always the faster runner; she was only seven and could beat most of the boys in the village, so Elizabeth didn't have much of a chance. Before long though, Elizabeth saw Anne stop dead in the middle of a field. The view to the abbey here was very clear, and when Elizabeth caught her, clutching her side and gasping for breath, she saw what had halted Anne so suddenly. Men on horses. Men in armour on horses, looking like metal giants breathing fire. They were still a long way away, but even so they could smell the raging furnace and hear the desperate screams.
‘Annie…’ Elizabeth whispered, grasping her hand. Anne stood still as a mountain, and did not turn to face her friend. A tear carved its way down her cheek. A breeze suddenly whipped up and her tangled brown hair blew over her face, but she made no effort to sweep it away from her eyes.
Elizabeth knew exactly why. Smoke and fire was pouring from the abbey grounds, but the imposing abbey was made almost entirely from stone. The buildings which were much more likely to be burning were the wooden outbuildings, and Anne's father worked in the stables. Elizabeth's mother sometimes cleaned in the abbey, a favour from the abbot, but because the building was so sturdy, she wasn't afraid for her.
From this distance, Elizabeth could see glints of metal – the men were drawing their swords – and she pulled Anne with all her might over to a crumbling stone wall on the edge of the field. When they were hidden, Anne shook Elizabeth's arms away, crouched down and hid her face in her hands. Elizabeth crouched next to her, closed her eyes, and waited.
When she had been younger, she didn't know how old, Elizabeth's father had been arrested. She could remember now the men on horses who had arrived at their home, the thud of their hooves on the mud path. Her mother’s face had gone ashen at the sound, and she had hidden Elizabeth under a pile of rags in the corner. The men had dismounted with a jangle of iron on iron and thumped on the door. Her mother had glanced desperately at Elizabeth’s hiding place, pressed her fingers to her lips, then opened the door. Through a small gap in the rags, Elizabeth could see the men silhouetted against the doorframe, huge with their helmets and cloaks. One of the men had thrown her mother to the ground and she had stayed there. Her father had been sitting on a stool by the fire, mending his boots. He did not stand when his wife hit the floor, but carried on with his needle and thread, humming slightly. Two of the men had swept into the room, the scent of smoke and leather filled Elizabeth's nostrils, grabbed her father under the armpits and dragged him away without a sound. That was the last time she saw him (although she hadn't seen much of him before then either) and her mother eventually explained to her that he'd been hung three weeks later for stealing a sheep.
Lots of children grew up without a ma or a pa, that was just the way things were. Some went away, for a job, and never came back. Many died, there were often outbreaks and although the young children and old ones were usually the ones to go, sometimes a strong adult would pass. So Elizabeth never felt sad about having no pa, apart from when the Nutter kids from the farm across the way yelled at her, but it had been their sheep her father had stolen after all. Still, she knew why Anne was so sad. Her ma was already gone, child birth, she lived with her pa and her grandma and there were five other children, the littlest one only crawling, so who would keep their family going now? The Abbot would probably help, like he'd helped Ma after Pa was taken away. The Abbot said the bible teaches us to be charitable to those in need.
When some time had passed, more sounds came from the abbey – clanking and shouting. Elizabeth peered over the wall. As far as she could see, the men were getting ready to leave. They were hurling sacks over their horses, yelling to one another. Eventually, they were all ready and the horses began to canter in a cloud of dust. They came perilously close to Anne and Elizabeth, who ducked away beneath their wall and tried not to look at the grey, dusty giants hurtling down the path, stinking of scorched flesh and sweat. Fortunately, the men were distracted, cheerful, and did not spot the two small girls.
‘Annie, let's go,’ Elizabeth hissed when the men were a safe distance away, pulling at Anne's arm. Anne gazed up at her with eyes dark and bruised from crying. She allowed Elizabeth to pull her along silently, and together they trod carefully over the ever more singed grass towards the abbey. Elizabeth had been right – the abbey still stood, but there were no welcoming candles flickering in the windows. The building was dark, ominous.
They walked apprehensively through the stone gate and around the northern most abbey wall towards the stables. As soon as they had passed the wall, Elizabeth bent double and vomited, gasping, onto the floor.
Elizabeth's mother lay, glazed eyes staring at the heavens, her brown dress pulled up over her hips exposing a gaping wound to her stomach. White, icy still. There was no way anyone could survive an incision like that. Elizabeth crawled over to her, shock causing her to shake, put her arms around her neck and began to sob into her shoulder.
Anne swallowed back bile and left her friend with her mother’s corpse. She slowly walked towards the raging furnace which used to be a stable, eyes fixed in front of her.
‘Child?’ a disembodied voice whispered. Anne whipped around to see a monk hiding behind a pile of barrels, his round face sweating from the otherworldly heat, ‘have they gone?’
Anne nodded, her lips tightly shut, and kept walking towards the stable. There was an echoing, creaking noise and with a crash, part of the roof fell away. Anne lifted her head – she had hit the ground, and saw that the monk had pulled her safely from a falling burning beam which now lay smouldering on the floor beside her.
‘Don't go any further!’ The monk spluttered, his red face smeared with ash, ‘they came and created hell, and now hell is here on earth! God forgive me, I could not save them!’
‘Who?’ Annie asked tremulously, ‘where is everyone?’
The monk simply closed his eyes and muttered prayers under his breath, rocking back and forward towards the ground.
Anne knew she shouldn't be surprised about this. The King's men had come weeks before to arrest the abbot. Pa had said that they didn't like the old religion anymore, they had to do something different now, but the abbot had carried on. All the people in Whalley still went to the abbey, they still sprinkled salt over the graves of the dead to keep away the evil, and Abbot Paslew still said the last rites and lit the incense and said the secret, precious prayers. Pa said this was wrong now, they had to do things the new way and the King must have heard. Anne didn't know what the new way was.
The monk had turned away from Anne towards the abbey wall. Still muttering and murmuring his forbidden prayers, he raised his arms towards something on the wall, something thrust through a window on a spike and left for the world to see. It was wrapped in chains, skeletal, with rags hanging from arms and gangling, loose legs. Its face, if it could still be called that, tipped sideways from a broken, purple neck; mouth gaping wide and eyes blank.
‘Who?’ Anne asked the monk, who raised his head towards the sky and muttered, as though he wished it were untrue:
‘The Abbot. The King has returned him.’