Henry in Finkle Road

XXVIII

By Michael Arram

The darkness of the tunnel was not so absolute when Henry and Terry penetrated beyond the entrance. There was enough light for ferns to survive, growing out of the damp walls.

Ten yards in they came to a junction, with tunnels leading off to left and right. Above them they could barely make out a brick dome. At first all seemed silent, but as Henry listened, he heard a distant rip and crunch echoing down the walls from the left. He and Terry moved silently across the sanded earth floor of the catacomb.

Another arch loomed above them, and beyond it was a rotunda of some sort, with a skylight spilling a dim gleam into the space below. A great sarcophagus lay immediately under the dome. The walls were a honeycomb of slots, or loculi, many occupied by coffins, some of decaying lead, others covered in perished velvet and studded with brass nails. One or two were surmounted with princely coronets of tarnished brass.

Men were smashing the lower ones and spilling their contents on to the floor. Rags of shrouds and corpses in varying states of decomposition were grotesquely strewn in the dust. Piotr Bermann, standing beside the sarcophagus, was directing the monstrous work. Two of his acolytes were holding Gavin, Wardrinski and Helge at gunpoint.

'Stop this blasphemy!' Helge suddenly hissed.

Bermann coldly replied, 'Then tell us what we need to know, woman. It will be easier that way. We will find the relic, you may be sure.'

'It is not amongst the bones of my family. You are desecrating them to no purpose.'

'Then where is it? Tell me!'

Wardrinski cut in. 'Let us go. This is all nonsense. You cannot seriously be expecting to find some magical talisman in this dreadful place. I cannot believe that such stubborn superstition exists in a modern country.'

Bermann told his men to stop. 'Enough. I believe she is telling the truth. We will try another tack. Bring the boy over here!'

Gavin was roughly shoved in front of Bermann. Henry looked with mingled surprise and awe at his lover, who stood tall, taller than Henry ever remembered seeing him. His gaze was quite unafraid.

'You, boy! You know something, I'm sure of it.'

Gavin replied perfectly calmly, his shyness and hesitancy all gone, 'I know that death awaits the hand that moves against the Ark. You shall not touch it and live.'

His words seemed to disturb the acolytes. They looked uneasily at their leader.

'Nonsense,' Bermann exclaimed. 'Tell me more, boy. Because you do know more, don't you.'

'I do not know where the relic is. Only Mendamero knows. Listen. He is almost here.'

Gavin's words made the acolytes even more uneasy, causing them to whisper one to the other.

Bermann put his shotgun to Gavin's temple. 'Countess, I will first shoot this boy, if you do not tell me the place where the Ark may be found. Then I will shoot the professor. Then you will die, and I will take this place down stone by stone until I find it. You shall not stop me completing the work of the Priory and freeing our land from its corruption!'

Terry prodded Henry gently. 'There are too many of them. I can only take out six at most.'

Henry looked around, and an idea swelled up in his heart. 'Look, Terry, I have a plan. Go back to the others. Get the police from the Modenehem barracks. I'm pretty confident I can delay them for a while.'

Terry hissed, 'What have you got in mind?'

'Just go, before I wet myself and chicken out. But it will work. Now go.'

Terry hesitated, kissed Henry quickly and left.

Henry straightened his clothes, and with as much coolness as he could muster, stepped out into the rotunda. All spun round to look at him.

Bermann exclaimed, 'Who in God's name...?'

Henry raised an eyebrow at him. 'You were expecting me, I think. Mendamero is here.'

There was a shocked pause.

Bermann stared blankly at Henry. 'You are Mendamero? But you are the English boy, the friend of the king. How can you be Mendamero? He is to save our land. He will be Rothenian.'

'I don't believe St Fenice actually said that Mendamero was going to be a native Rothenian. After all, she herself was a Magyar by birth. The Ark holds a treasure which belongs to every nation, not just this one. You fool. You really do not know what you are tampering with, do you. You are like some silly child, probing in an electric socket with a screwdriver, just to see what will happen.'

'Bring him over here.'

Men closed behind Henry and herded him up next to Gavin, who was smiling at him with a calm serenity that was quite frightening in the circumstances. Had Gavin flipped? Henry noticed that the acolytes were reluctant to touch either of them.

Once out under the dome, Henry realised that the rotunda had three alcoves the height of a man, in addition to the entrance arch. The ones opposite the arch and to its left were blank. The third, now in front of him, was curiously carved with letters to form an inscription that reminded him of a crossword puzzle.

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Henry stared at it. Bermann followed his gaze and gave a wicked grin. 'Do you know what this signifies, Mr Atwood? No? It is in Latin, which is not much taught in English schools now, I believe.'

Gavin said in his new, clear voice, 'It is a warning to the likes of you. It says, "The man of God should proceed in this manner if he should wish to see the face of God - in faith and in hope of eternal life in Christ".'

Henry was stunned. He did not know Gavin understood Latin. Indeed, he was quite certain Gavin had no Latin at all.

Bermann was also disconcerted. 'Yes,' he grunted, 'that is what it says. But I think it gives us a key, rather than a warning, because beyond that arch may lie what we wish to find. So, Mr Mendamero, perhaps you can tell us how to proceed. Or shall I have to shoot your boyfriend first, just to encourage you?'

Gavin whispered in Henry's ear, 'Remember my dream, Henry: "Mendamero shall show the way".'

Henry moved over to the panel, which reached up to his head height. Each letter was set into a sort of compartment having a copper hook below it, all green now with the verdigris of age. He scanned the puzzle a moment, and in a flash of inspiration the answer came into his mind. He took the hook under the M on the first row of letters and gave it a tug. It slid outwards slowly, accompanied by a grinding noise from behind the wall, deafening in the sudden silence that filled the rotunda. It ended with a thud.

Henry could not keep from chuckling. So this was MENDAMERO - not a man, but the key to a puzzle. He pulled out the E on the second row with the same result as for the M. Perhaps had he pulled out the wrong letter, things would have been different, maybe even catastrophic.

He carried on slowly, pulling out each letter in turn. It was only the seventh row which caused him problems, because it gave him a choice of E's. He thought for a long time before opting for the first. The second was part of a diphthong. The clunk and grind behind the wall confirmed his choice. Eventually he had completed all but the last letter, taking it as slowly as he could.

I

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By now Bermann had seen the way the riddle was to be solved, and reached forward to pull out the O himself.

Henry tried to stall him. 'Wait! Have you any real idea what lies behind that wall? Do you truly suppose the relic will allow itself to be approached? You know the prophecy as well as I do.'

'Fool!' snarled Bermann. 'We and we alone are the righteous ones who may approach the relic. It was being kept for us. Don't you see?' He moved forward eagerly and wrenched out the final letter. This time a titanic crash boomed out from the wall, a sound that set their ears ringing.

The rear of the alcove retreated slowly before them as old machinery began to function. At a certain point the wall halted, pulled the letters back into their compartments and opened like a door. The entrance had reset itself, ready to close again upon its treasure.

Everyone, even Wardrinski, leaned forward to see what was revealed. Only blackness met their eyes.

One of the acolytes came forward with an electric lamp. He clicked it on, but nothing happened. He shook it, to no avail. It was dead.

The acolyte looked at Bermann, clearly bewildered. 'It was working just five minutes ago.'

Bermann too was troubled. He gestured with his gun. 'You four, go forward. If there are traps, it's only right that the Levite and her friends should run the risk first.'

Henry was prodded to Helge's side. 'Do you know what's in there?'

'No Henry,' she replied. 'It has not been necessary for a Levite to open the wall for over a century. My aunt and predecessor mentioned no traps or devices, however, just that if the time ever came for me to enter, I should do so prayerfully and with preparation.'

So Henry said a prayer as he was shoved forward with the others.

Once past the door, they found themselves in a dark passage. There was a strange metallic tang in the air, perhaps created by the grinding of the old machinery. The passage was not absolutely dark, however. A dim light grew in front of them as their eyes adjusted to the gloom.

Gavin whispered, 'Let me go forward first. I am in less danger from this thing than any of you.'

'How do you know, baby?'

'I just know.' Henry felt a kiss on his cheek. Gavin began moving forward, supporting himself by a hand on the wall. The passage went on a long way, and from the feel of the living rock under his fingers, Henry knew it was burrowing under the hill behind the church.

Eventually they came out into an open space. It was lit by sunlight streaming down through a shaft in the roof, which almost blinded them.

Henry glanced back. Only Bermann and two of the acolytes had followed them. The others had either refused to pass the arch or been ordered not to. Judging by his own emotional state, Henry rather thought it was the first option. The feeling of being in the presence of something deeply forbidding had been growing on him with every step he took.

Looking around him, Henry realised the seven of them were standing in an artificial sandstone cavern. It was featureless except for a square panel above the opposite entrance, which warned starkly: NOLI TANGERE CHRISTVS DOMINI. Gavin gestured at the words. '"Touch not the Lord's Anointed!" This may be your last such warning!'

A reluctance to move on gripped Henry's heart. He was not alone in knowing that the warning boded no good to any of them. Bermann too was struggling with some inner turmoil. But he was resolute, if nothing else. Taking Gavin by the arm, he forced the boy forward in front of him like a shield. Then he pointed to Henry. 'Bring that one along after me. Keep the rest of them here.'

Henry was seized and pushed ahead of an acolyte. The new passage stretched dimly ahead of them, although Henry was quite sure that what light there was came from no natural source. As the earth floor gave way to flagstones, yet another arch appeared. Dim light radiated from within it, and a number of objects could be seen bulking beyond. The inner chamber walls were wood-panelled, which did not surprise Henry in the least.

At this point, Henry's feet began to feel leaden. It was as if he were suddenly on a steep slope. Every step became a real effort to make. The two Rothenians seemed also to be having trouble. Only Gavin appeared to be unaffected. However, it was not so much the physical effort that was the problem, it was more the distinct unwillingness of Henry's mind to push his body onward. Images kept appearing to him: petty and silly grudges he had kept up over the years, harsh words he had spoken deliberately, uncharitable thoughts he had entertained. His entire unworthiness was being demonstrated to him by a force that understood him all too well. He knew that it did not hold him in contempt for what he had said and done, but he also knew that at the end of the passage he would come face to face with a presence he was not worthy to encounter. He sank to his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, and hung his head.

Gavin reached down and stroked his hair. Henry looked up at the boy in wonder. Gavin's eyes held such love for him that he was both humbled and exalted by the sight. With that the oppression eased, and he could at least think again.

Bermann too had mastered himself, though at the cost of an effort that had brought beads of sweat to his forehead. The other Rothenian had dropped his gun, and was on his knees weeping softly, his face buried in his hands.

Bermann clapped his sawn-off shotgun to Henry's head. 'Now, boy. Get the thing,' he gasped to Gavin. 'You know what it is and where it is.'

Giving Bermann an unfathomable look, Gavin sighed as if disappointed in something. Then he moved on into the chamber to stop before a great lidded sarcophagus, the tomb of St Fenice, Henry guessed. Gavin pulled back the lid with no apparent effort. As he did so, the room brightened. Sparkling in the growing light were all sorts of glittering and gleaming objects - other precious relics and treasures, Henry did not doubt.

Gavin reached in, straightened and held up a large gabled box. Henry had no difficulty recognising the reliquary from the illumination. It appeared to be fashioned of silver, and was shining in Gavin's hands. An insistent hum filled the air, seeming to Henry to be mingled with a distant sound, as of music.

What Bermann heard must have been different, for a new look of horror began to grow in his eyes. But the man had an iron resolve, as souls must if they wish to court damnation. He roughly hauled Henry to his feet before croaking to Gavin, 'Bring it here. Bring me the Ark!'

Gavin slowly walked forward, only to stop and remonstrate one last time, 'You may not touch it. Don't you see the precipice on which you stand? It will forgive you. It will let you go if you just repent of your folly and turn back. It's still not too late.'

Bermann howled with anger. He released Henry, who slumped to the ground. 'Give me the damned thing!' he bellowed. He raised the shotgun once more, but this time pointed it at Gavin.

The threat to his lover freed Henry's limbs. Part of him was very scared because he knew the inevitable cost, but another part knew what he had to do. He leaped to grapple with Bermann. He had the barrel of the shotgun in his hands and was wrestling for possession. Bermann glared into his eyes, a vein ticking in his temple, his face covered in a sheen of sweat.

An explosion occurred between Henry and Bermann. Henry smelled the cordite and even saw the whiff of blue smoke. For a moment he was triumphant, feeling no pain, but then his legs buckled and he went down on his knees, dragging the gun from Bermann's hands. His stomach was a ragged red ruin, and he wished he'd not looked down at it. He slumped to his side. Shadows gathered around the edges of his vision.

Ignoring Henry, Bermann was reaching out to take the Ark from Gavin with both hands. Gavin was resignedly offering it to him. A pulsing flare of light hid the result, as blackness claimed Henry.

A cool hand on his forehead recalled him briefly. A voice was saying, 'Goodbye, Henry my Henry. Live. Love. Enjoy. You will miss me, but we will meet again some day, maybe here or maybe in another place.'

'No,' he whimpered. 'Don't leave me, baby.'

'You will be healed, Henry. It was always meant to be this way.'

Shouts were echoing in the tunnel as Henry fell into darkness.

Henry woke. He was out in the churchyard under the trees. The fresh and warm summer air was round about him. There were state policemen everywhere. A cuffed acolyte was taken past him as he looked up. Ed Cornish, Davey Skipper and Terry O'Brien were staring down at him with very troubled faces. Henry convulsively reached down to his stomach. He looked. The front of his shirt was little more than bloodstained and blackened rags, but the smooth and undamaged flesh of his abdomen could be seen beneath it.

'Where's Gavin?' he croaked.

'We don't know, sweet babe,' Terry replied. 'We found you and one of the acolytes unconscious at the entrance to a large chamber under the hill. You were lying in a pool of blood. But whose blood it was I don't know, as you're quite untouched.'

'Helge, where's she?'

'She's talking to the police commandant. What happened to Bermann?'

Henry sat up, despite feeling that his head was spinning. 'I don't think anyone'll be seeing him again, not in this world.' Then the ache began in his heart, which knew that neither would he be seeing Gavin. 'Did you see anything else?'

Terry shook his head. 'Only a huge stone sarcophagus standing empty in the middle of a big, panelled room. Was there more to see? We passed a stone door with letters on, and we found the acolytes all huddled together in an excavated cavern with Helge and Wardrinski. Bermann's men were very happy to surrender. Then we came upon you and the other guy a small distance further on by the archway into the second chamber. It had no exit apart from the way we went in.'

'This other guy, the Rothenian you found with me. What sort of state is he in?'

'An odd one, babe. He's in a trance. His eyes are open but he can't see, and he doesn't hear anything said to him. either. He's deep in shock.'

'Get me up, please,' Henry asked. 'I need to talk to Helge.'

Henry struggled over to the countess, who was being saluted by the commandant as he left. She looked in his face uneasily. 'Henry, oh Henry! I need to know exactly what happened in the tomb. I saw the light and heard the noises. Gavin?'

'He's gone, Helge. He'll never be back. The Ark took him, as it took Bermann, though I think it took Gavin to a very different place.' As he spoke those words, the tears began coursing down his cheeks, cutting channels through the smoke and dirt that had soiled his face. But through his tears, he told Helge all he could remember.

Helge held Henry in her arms, and kissed his forehead. After a while she said, 'I don't think he's gone, Henry dearest. He was the foretold warrior, the pure in heart. His fate was long fixed. You know the story of the Holy Grail, don't you Henry? It was Gawain who was allowed to approach the relic rather than his friend Lancelot, who was the greater champion but was forbidden to go on because of his sins. Gawain was taken to join the company of Grail knights, while Lancelot laboured on in the world in sadness and regret.

'So maybe it will be with you, but only if you are not strong enough to take up the gift of life that Gavin gave to you. Don't grieve for him. He now has a new task. The work of the Levites is done. Somewhere Gavin must be making a new fortress for the Ark, until the day of its full revelation is come. It may not be long delayed.'

Henry sighed. 'Then what's left for me?'

'Live. Love. Enjoy,' Helge replied, with a slight smile. 'And you are loved by so many, Henry.'

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