They arrived at first light, tying up their horses to wait beneath a drizzling sky. The Prime bell had just rung, but Brother Paul and the other monks were hastening away from their church, not towards it.
King Henry’s commissioners had been expected for days. Rumours had become truths, anxiety had become fear; appeals made and rejected. Like a canker, the closures were spreading from north to south, west to east.
Pines shielded the Benedictines from view and dampened hushed voices. They’d gathered the church plate in sacks; as much as they could collectively carry. Paul’s cassock brushed dewy grass as he scurried, the sack clinking against his strong back.
Holding up a candle at the crypt entrance, he whispered, “Follow me, brothers, quickly.” They knew the passageway and where it opened near a rocky outcrop; a remote place where salt-tinged wind blew in from the sea. Hunching low, they began walking steadily along the tunnel.
“Turn back, my brothers!” Paul called out. He moved along the line, wavering light betraying the tension in his outstretched arm. A dislodged boulder blocked their route; the only way forward. Shadows swam across their faces.
They found the crypt entrance barred somehow on the outside; barely a glimmer of light seeped through. The beginning was now an end. The pit of Paul’s belly turned over; the commissioners had wasted no time.
He began helping the others, all of them like desperate animals, to try and force it open. But as despair overwhelmed him, he sank to his knees on the rock-floor, clutching his torn fingernails. Nobody spoke. The chilling thought entered his mind; Henry always achieved what he set upon.
In time the candle flames dwindled and snuffed out. Within the suffocating space, the stale air could not sustain so many men. Their only water dripped from the roof and trickled down the walls, but it was little.
As Paul slowly weakened, he thought he heard voices from beyond their underground prison. Then more voices, gentler voices, spoke softly to him; someone was reassuring him and in his heart, it was God.
In darkness, together, the men talked and prayed for endless days, until there was no stagnant black air left to breathe, and their darkness became light again.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. She’s been long-listed by Reflex Fiction and in the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Her work has also appeared in FlashBack Fiction and The Cabinet of Heed. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.