After matins, December 15th, 1001,
Polleswyrth Abbey, On the Border of the shires Warwick and Stafford
Merewyn awoke to the soft thud of the door door closing on the slæpern she shared with the other Sisters of her order. Her eyes blinked in the darkness. The only light she could see was a warm flickering orange light coming from beneath the door fading as whoever it was continued down the hall. The young woman shifted under her heavy wool blankets grimacing slightly as she tried to determine why she had woken. Normally light traffic in the room would not have bothered her. There was often another Sister moving about after matins on one task or another. Finally her mind seized on a single sound picked up by her sleep muddled ears. It had been a muffled squeal of surprise. The voice had Sister Inga’s shrill tone, which made sense as she had candle and prayer duty this night. As the footsteps and other sounds faded she picked out another aspect of the noise. Sister Inga had been gasping and whining as if in fright. What is the matter?
Gathering a blanket around her shoulders she sat up in her pallet looking out into the darkness. Long practice allowed her to reach out in the full darkness of the room and pick up her heavy wool habit from the short table she set it upon nightly before bed. Bracing herself from the cold she turned out of her blankets completely. Years of practice gave her the ability to find her slippers on the floor nearby without being able to see them. Working quickly she stepped into her slippers and stood to slip the habit down over her shift while still cloaked in full darkness. Wrapping the habit more tightly about herself she shuffled slowly across the floor to the slæpern door. With a firm pull the thick oaken door creaked softly and swung back into the room to reveal the dimly lit anteroom used for removing mud caked shoes before entering the actual living space. Her brows furrowed in thought because this room should be nearly as dark as the slæpern itself. All of the shutters in the main room were fully closed, barred, and covered in thick tapestries or blankets this time of year. Here in the anteroom the shutters were not covered but they were still closed. That should mean that only a little starlight and moonlight might shine between the cracks. Tonight though was a waning sliver of moon and she thought it should have set by now anyway. So there should be little to no light coming through the shutter at all, but there was quite a bit. It set the room with an eerie greenish-blue light. Timidly she stepped into the anteroom and shut the door softly behind herself. Quietly she crept across the to the shutter and opened it just a crack to peek outside the building. She had to stifle a gasp, hand rising up to cover her mouth, eyes widening.
Soft greenish-blue lights bobbed and weaved as they floated within a thick impenetrable fog. Never had she seen a mist so thick. She should be able to see the spire of the stone church building rising up from behind the other slæpern that lay across the abbey yard from where she stood. Instead it was difficult to even make out the squared walls of the slæpern itself and the church spire was completely hidden from view.
Eyes wide in shock, her mouth hung open, skin pebbling as tingles of fear washed over her body. There were loops and tendrils that moved within the fog carrying the moving lights as they undulated through the fog like a pile of worms in the garden compost. Her heart began to race and her breathing became rapid. A strangled gasp erupted from her mouth until she clamped a hand down over her own lips. The eerie green lights reminded her of eyes dancing at the edge of firelight. Cold green eyes. The fog itself, emanating a soft blue glow, filled the air all around the abbey grounds with light that should let her see a good distance but somehow didn’t. In fact when Merewyn turned her eyes upward the sky was lost in mist, and the lights moved everywhere. Breath came in gasps and whines, her head grew light, vision narrowed and her knees grew weak.
“What are you doing awake Sister Merewyn?”
Merewyn screamed and nearly fainted dead away. Only her hand clutching the door frame allowed her to still stand. Her vision blurred and her heart leaped in her chest, panic welling inside her making her want to run as fast as she could, until she recognized the voice of the Prioress. When she turned to the left Merewyn saw the Mother and Sister Claudia, Mother’s subprioress, followed by Sister Inga.
“Oh Mother, you frightened me,” Merewyn’s voice trembled. “Something woke me. So I came out to see what it might be… and found this. What is it Mother?”
The Prioress was a stern and frightening woman under normal circumstances. Her overbearing presence combined with the, presence of this strange fog, made Merewyn’s heart pound in her chest and her mind think of ways to escape. The Mother’s cold eyes drilled into the young nun as if she could see all of her sins.
“I see. Well come with us, Child. I can’t have you wandering around alone on a night like this.”
Without waiting for any kind of answer from the girl, the Prioress stepped past her and continued on along the path that ringed the inner abbey yard. She was quickly followed by the other two women. With nothing else to do, Merewyn followed the group. Worriedly she pulled out her rosary beads and began to pray with fervent passion under her breath. As the four women turned at the corner of the yard the young woman noted how quiet it was. The abbey was quiet most of the time, but there was an uncanny stillness in the air to go along with the strange fog that utterly surrounded them. She heard no wind at all. There was no creak of branch against branch in the nearby trees. She would have described it as utter tranquility if she were not so terrified. It almost seemed that the very air itself swallowed up the sound of the scuffing of their feet and the swishing of their habits as they walked. The realization sent renewed shivers up her back and caused her to look over her shoulder for the foul beast that was surely ready to pounce upon and eat her. Of course the yard behind her was empty.
“Ooph!” she exclaimed as she collided with Sister Inga who had stopped behind the Prioress. “My apologies Sister…”
More words stuck in her throat as she saw the Mother had stopped next to the closed doorway of the wool carding house. She was just standing there, not moving, and Merewyn couldn’t understand why until her eyes wandered upward slightly. Sister Inga turned to address her directly and so did not see what had stopped the Mother in her tracks.
“That’s all right Sister Merewyn,” replied the older woman. “I’m a bit aflutter myself right now.”
Trying to offer her Sister the attention she deserved was almost impossible with her eyes drawn to the vision of the church spire, barely seen through the fog, surrounded by the ghostly apparitions floating along in the tendrils of fog. It was then that the young woman noticed that the other nun was also breathing rapidly and that her face was flushed and fearful in appearance. Knowing that she wasn’t the only one who was frightened somehow did not give Merewyn any relief or satisfaction. In fact, seeing the church enveloped in this frightful mist only enhanced her terror when she knew that there might be true reason to fear. She remembered one saying, among the many, that her mother was often repeating when she was a child. “When both dogs are growling,” her mother used to say. “You know for sure that something or someone is outside the door.” If Merewyn wasn’t the only one who was worried, then to her mind, that meant that there must be something to be truly worried about. It was what to be worried about that confused her so. What was this strange fog? What were those lights? What was happening? Was it everywhere? Or just here? God would protect the abbey. Wouldn’t He?
“What is it Sister?” asked Sister Inga when she saw that Merewyn wasn’t looking at her. Then she turned behind her and gasped in shock to see the church herself. “Oh!”
The Mother Superior raised her hands onto her hips and glared out into the strange fog as if by her grim gaze she could banish it back to where it had come from. The greenish lights moved through the cold blue fog unaffected by the Mother’s determined stare. It seemed to Merewyn that there were more lights than had been there only a few minutes before. Sister Inga clutched at her crucifix and her eyes goggled at the sight of the tendrils of fog twisting through the air. Merewyn saw how calm the Mother seemed to be and drew a sense of serenity from her example.
“Hmph,” grunted the Mother and pointed upward. “The lights move about but they only come so close to the slæperns. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life.”
Merewyn’s eyes opened wide in some shock to hear the Mother say that. The Mother was OLD. She had to be at least fifty. To a young woman who had only seen sixteen summers that was very old. If the Mother had never seen anything like it then it had never happened as far as Merewyn was concerned. Despite her surprise at that knowledge the young woman also perceived what the Mother Superior had said. Indeed the lights seemed to stay at least two or three paces away from the slæperns while they moved freely about any of the other buildings. Though the fog itself seemed to be everywhere. A sudden realization dawned on her. The fog had even somehow filled the buildings themselves and the lights were avoiding coming close to any place that held another person. In fact she noticed now that the lights floated about their small group but came no closer than the Mother’s aforementioned two or three paces. She wanted to run but everywhere she looked there was the fog.
“Sister Inga, go with Sister Claudia,” commanded the Mother Superior. “Wake all of our sleeping Sisters softly, quietly and gently. I must go speak with the Abbot. He must be told about this if he hasn’t been already. I don’t want want anyone walking out in this alone, including myself, so Sister Merewyn will come with me. When you have gathered all of the Sisters bring them to the church. We will gather there and pray.”
Sister Inga’s eyes bulged and she looked to be on the verge of open disobedience. The subprioress stepped close with a face set in determination. Merewyn was sure that there was about to be a serious discussion about faith in God and obedience to His will as voiced by His earthly representative, but then a muffled sound emerged from the fog that caused them all to look out into the strange night. The young woman strained to see but the fog and the lights were so thick that it was impossible to see much more than ten paces. Then she smiled because even if she couldn’t see him she could recognize that deep voice.
Brother Ulfrick was a grey haired old man who, it was said, had been at the abbey his whole life. Merewyn thought he must be older than the Mother. It was rare that any of the nuns interacted with any of the men in the abbey across the large inner yard. Sometimes they would see the brothers as they tended the fields. Many times, while working in the gardens or sitting carding wool, she would hear him curse while he worked on one maintenance project or another. His language was often so colorful that it made her face turn red with embarrassment. Before long he would cross himself, fall to his knees and pray to God. It always made her laugh to see. Even considering only a few words had passed between them directly, Merewyn was very fond of the old Brother and his strange yet endearing way of loving God.
“Ah, Mother,” Ulfrick’s gravelly voice rumbled. “The Abbott has asked me to see you. He wishes to speak with you immediately, but I see that you were already on your way.”
“Yes I was,” she replied. “It is well that he is already awake. Sister Claudia, Sister Inga, do as I have said. Perhaps by the time that you have gathered our Sisters together and ensured that they are clothed properly I will have been able to get one of our brothers to set out a line of torches between here and the church.”
Without another glance the Mother strode past Brother Ulfrick and down the path towards the Abbott’s dwelling. He was the only one among all of them who had a house to himself. With a squeak Merewyn hopped forward before the Mother could disappear into the mists. Ulfrick only chuckled softly and turned to follow close behind.
slæpern- (Old English) Dormitory/sleeping quarters
matins- (Latin) Monastic nighttime liturgy. Approximately midnight.
Prioress- Title of office, just below Abbess or Abbot. Also referred to as Mother.
Subprioress- unofficial title. Assistant to the Prioress.