From the edge of the cliff, on a track of flattened grass pressed into mud that plunged to battered rocks harassed by endlessly churning waves, we saw the approaching boats. Three, in silhouette against the morning Sun. The long, open boats were so close to shore they had already pulled in their sails, and the dragons grew ever larger as they cut through the waters lapping to the shore. Leaves rustled as the wind blew through the Oak and Chestnut trees; the breeze sighed as one more leaf fell to the ground. The Abbot stuck out an arm; Brother Gregory placed a telescope in the out-stretched hand of the Abbot.
‘Those are strange boats indeed.’ I worried, fearing they would come to rest on the sandy beach of the cove within only a few minutes, ‘Do you think these are the strangers who attacked Lindisfarne?’
‘Perhaps these are the strangers are those who attacked then,’ replied the Abbot, ‘these boats are as the monks described, are they not? These men could have malevolent intentions, but God may protect us from danger.’
Three monks had accompanied the Abbot to the hill that protected the monastery from the wind whipped across the northern sea. We were used to traders and strangers arriving at our little harbour, deep and protected by high cliffs on three sides; it was an excellent anchorage for smaller vessels. On those occasions we had clambered down the cliff path to greet the vessels that came to rest on the beach, but now we retreated with the Abbot as he made his way out of the trees and down the grassy slope towards the solid stone walls of the monastery.
We passed through the low gates of the monastery, through an arch so low that it would cause a tall man to stoop; the Abbot motioned that brother Gregory and I should ascend the bell tower to raise the alarm for the whole monastery. Brother Michael followed the Abbot towards the granite chapel annexed to the main building. When we reached the top of the tower, I peered down to see brother Michael; scurrying, with cups encrusted in Iona’s style; gold and silver, jewelled crosses sparkling in the sunlight, metal chains and lockets guarding precious pictures. He was bringing them all into the chapel.
The bell soon clanged through the buildings of the settlement; panicked men and women ran back and forth, pulling up the hems of their robes and holding the sides of their breeches; brandishing feeble weapons and looking for places to hide as the horde approached. Brother Gregory and I barred the door of the bell tower with all we could find, pulling up a ladder behind, crouching behind the battlements at the top, peering through the gaps meant for bow and arrow.
From this vantage point we could see the giants’ approach, to a man they had to crouch to enter the compound. They wore the fearsome expressions of devils; and all carried weapons, too heavy to be wielded by ordinary men. Leather breastplates protected them from attack, heavy shields easily deflected the blows of any yeomen that dared to confront them. The monks and nuns seldom fought; they were not prepared to resist such a brutal attack. Many lay down their weapons when faced with the challenge; others lost theirs, mowed down by the force.
These men released blood-curdling cries as they cut down their foes, invading our home and tainting it with greed and wrath; punishing our sloth and our pride in everlasting granite. The bars across many doors were only a minor inconvenience for the invaders, a few kicks from them could break any barrier. The attack was swift, cut short by a battalion of soldiers from neighbouring Castle; we were lucky, they had heard the bell, the soldiers knew that we needed their aid.
‘Father Abbot might say that was God’s will that the soldiers intervened on our behalf,’ commented Brother Gregory. I slowly nodded, considering the accuracy of the statement; reflecting that the invaders were still retreating with a considerable haul, precious metals and jewels with value beyond that seen by the invaders.
Crouched behind the battlements, I dared not move until I saw the Abbot leaving the chapel. He looked very distraught, almost in tears as he heard the moans surrounding him, the lifeless bodies, of our brethren lying on the ground around him. He then froze; the sounds of shouting and clashing of metal drifting up from the cove; becoming clearer as the wind changed direction.
But this sound soon dissipated, replaced by the cackle of seagulls and the roar of the waves.
The Abbot maintained that he had not seen or heard much of the fighting, hiding with some of our most valued treasures in a secret chamber underneath the slate floor of the alter.
‘It was difficult to decide which relics to hide beneath the alter,’ explained the Abbot, ‘I fear they will soon be all we have left. I decided older items were the most important. Do you recall the carving of Saint Bartholomew?’
‘Depicting his mission to India?’ I replied, ‘Yes, I know it very well.’
‘That is from the early Christianity, painted hundreds of years ago; I felt its safety essential.’
‘Yes, I consider it among our most important icons.’
‘I heard sounds from the beach,’ stated the Abbott. ‘We shall investigate the harbour, perhaps we will find items of unseen value that have been discarded.’
Alert to signs of danger, we descended the cliff path; growing more confident with each step, as we continued to hear only seagulls and the waves. The Abbot and I soon reached the cove, finding it spattered with the bodies of those that had fallen in battle. Dressed in brown tunics and blue tunics, some also wearing mail; all covered in blood. The Abbot and I attempted to chase away the gulls and crows that were picking through the battleground, but the birds were angry at the intrusion. Seagulls cawed and swooped low over my head as I attempted to drive others away. To my dismay I recognised only brave Saxon warriors and villagers on the beach; any harm to the Northmen remained unseen.
‘This raid brought us great suffering,’ I said to the Abbot, ‘but those strange Devils have suffered little. What manner of men be they that could do this? Why would God allow such a thing to happen to us?’
‘These were not men!’ the Abbot cried, still chasing gulls away. ‘If God allowed this attack, it is a cleansing; as at the time of Noah. These destroyers of men can consume anything in their path; if they come back in greater number, they will have enough to destroy all Christendom. God wants to start again. If this raid was God’s will, we must take it as a sign.’
Today the sand was dark red, a crimson colouring leeched into the water with each lapping wave. In the shallows little farther out something glittered on the seabed. The Abbot lifted the hem of his robe and waded out to the detail of the object.
‘It is a cross,’ he said, ‘the devils on the boat must have dropped it in their escape. It is scant consolation when measured against all we have lost, but we can take some comfort from knowing that the thieves were not entirely successful in their endeavour.’ He released a small sigh as he tossed the golden crucifix back to me, to place in a Brown hessian bag with other artefacts I had found along their route. It seemed the marauders had collected more riches than they could carry.
‘Father Abbot, what remains in this monastery is still valuable; and the heathens are aware that we have little defence against their attacks. I fear they will be back to claim what they could not carry.’
The Abbott looked out to sea, using his hand as a brim to shield his eyes from the shards of light cutting through the clouds. There was little wind, the sea was flat; his view was clear.
‘I share the same concern,’ he replied, ‘but their boat has disappeared, so they cannot return soon. We can hope that God will spare us from his wrath for a moment longer.’
‘You think these heathens and their bizarre boat were sent by God?’ I cried, ‘what have we done to displease him so?’
‘Calm yourself, brother Clive; we both knew that this day might come. God’s final judgment carried out by a relentless force against which we cannot defend. Some of the objects that honoured him were taken from us, to show that they do not matter to him. Like the prodigal son we have had our feast, our Father will show us no more mercy. Now is the time to reflect on how God will judge us.’
In silence the Abbott and I combed the rest of the beach, searching for the injured among the dead, finding none; leaving the dead to be buried by waiting villagers. We left the farmers of the village to their task; the Abbot and I walked the path to the top the cliff; to the sombre granite buildings of our monastery.
As we neared the end of the path, curls of thick black smoke rising from within the ground, silent apart for the cooing of doves and the twitter of finches; I sought to break this silence, ‘Is this what our future will be?’
The Abbot looked towards the heavens as he replied ‘We were defenceless against the attack, even an army could not defeat such a malevolent force, seeking only to destroy our world. All we can do is prepare against the invasion, though our resistance may only be slight. This is what men will become,’ said the Abbot. ‘The Vikings will leave nothing in our world, remove all traces of civilisation, leaving the survivors to pick through charred remains like thieves and rats.’
‘But this is God’s sign the cleansing has begun. As in the time of Noah he uses the sea, but we should give thanks and gratitude for this warning’
‘Grateful?’ I wondered, ‘how can we be grateful when we have lost so many of our brothers and sisters, when we have seen so much what we love destroyed?’
‘God has shown kindness in giving us a warning, so we may not suffer more. As Noah built his Ark as the water began to rise, so we will retreat to the safety of our ministry, fortify our solid walls and pray that it is strong enough to resist the attacks of the north’s hordes. As Noah collected two of every animal, we shall allow the virtuous to hide with us within the monastery, to restart God’s plan once the onslaught has receded. As monks, among his most devout followers, it is his design that we survive to create a new world.’
‘An excellent plan, Father Abbot; and I will do what I can to help you complete this task.’
‘Of course, you will,’ smiled the Abbot.
We returned through the low gate, seeing the bodies of the dead carried off to the village in carts, the Abbot then ordering that I take the path to look out over the northern sea. The Abbot stood silent as I departed with the carts, then turned to find what he could to bar the door.