The security guard ran through the corridors towards the Foster Gallery, his footsteps echoing among the statuary.
In their control room on the other side of town, Charlie and Sam watched.
“There are two of them. One’s huge”.
Ted only picked out one word in three. Reception was poor in the museum. The walls were two-feet thick in places, with plenty of metalwork to break up the signal.
It was once the town prison and, before that, a monastery, probably founded during the sixth-century. Though it twice fell prey to raids, its position atop an easily defended hill discouraged most Viking activity.
Encouraged by their beneficent Lord, and tithes extracted from the locals, the monks expanded it into something remarkable. When Henry VIII ordered its destruction, thousands watched it burn, far more than later attended the public hangings.
The architect based designs for the sessions house on the existing foundations. Using surviving drawings, he aimed to recreate the finest lost jewel of the shire. Scholars remarked on its unusual architectural features, many of which became fashionable during subsequent centuries.
Legend says only one man escaped. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no-one ever broke in.
Ted pushed open the huge glass door.
He entered, shining his torch around the cases.
“Come on out, I know you’re there”.
The room was silent and still. He spoke into his radio.
“They’ve done eight and nine. And had a go at fourteen. Two storage heaters overturned. Looks like someone jumped on them”.
“Cabs Eighteen to twenty-four?”
Why would anyone go to such trouble for a few household trinkets when cabinets full of priceless treasure stood just yards away? It made no sense.
Pendred reached the forest and intoned a curse he learned from his father. The rain hadn’t eased since sunrise, and now it was almost dark. He headed for the thicket where he intended to shelter for the night.
At her wits’ end, his wife, Clotha, sent him to seek advice from the monks of Tilstow, whose monastery lay two days hence. Pendred knew the road well. He visited often as a boy, helping his father deliver provisions and carrying mead and candles back for the village. Those journeys were much quicker, made on horseback, with the added promise of a bed for the night.
Times were harder now. Just a week ago, Pendred sold the last of his animals and came home with less money than he hoped for.
Morning dawned bright and clear, and the day passed without incident. Travellers proceeded with caution hereabouts. His meagre provisions were such that any passing bandit might take pity and share his own meal. More likely, they would look at him, standing nearly a foot taller than most and as fit as any man in the kingdom, and leave him well alone. Starting early again on the following day, he quickly reached the edge of the trees and stepped onto the open road, where fields of wheat and barley ripened at their own pace while the world hurried by.
Turning the corner, he saw his destination, up on Edward’s Hill, named, like almost everything else around these parts, after the recently departed king. Many secretly wished for a succession of short-lived monarchs to dilute the nomenclature of their landmarks and make it possible to give directions again.
Pendred braced himself as the rise became steeper. In the days of Elthor, the monks cut a path which zig-zagged across the face of the hill. After a century, thousands of weary feet left it permanently established. He marched straight ahead towards the huge black door, treating the softer route with disdain. On arrival, he beat firmly three times and heard the echo in the courtyard behind.
A frail and wizened monk opened the door.
“Why, bless my soul! It’s young Pendred. Do come in”.
Pendred followed him to the library. “It’s changed”, he said.
“Indeed. We have Brother Haegwel to thank for that. Along with creating manuscripts none of us can decipher, he enjoys rebuilding the place. We regularly get lost and have to wait until someone finds us, but it keeps him out of mischief. Was he here when you last came?”
“I don’t think so”.
“That must be longer ago than I imagined, then. His arrival was most mysterious. He appeared from nowhere, here in the library. Brother Septimus found him, wearing the strangest clothes and speaking in a tongue none of us recognised. Fortunately, he knows Latin, so we used that until he learned proper English. He often complains of a lack of visitors and would be sorry to miss you. Make yourself comfortable, I’ll find him and collect refreshments on the way”.
Now alone, Pendred gazed at the shelves of books and manuscripts. How their collection had grown. As a boy, he yearned to read. Along with all his other childhood aspirations, that dream blew away long ago on the winds of time and grinding poverty.
Aelthord returned with a cask of ale, which Pendred disposed of with enthusiasm. As the friends spoke, Brother Haegwel entered silently and waited until one of them noticed. Pendred turned to refill his cup, saw him and dropped it on the floor in surprise. An oath rarely heard within those walls escaped his lips, which the others pretended not to hear.
“Brother Haegwel, our visitor has walked for two days to see us. Pendred, my friend, would you like to tell us why?”
Pendred’s wife, Clotha, converted to Christianity before they met. He remained unconvinced, but kept it to himself. His silence allowed her to think he shared her peculiar beliefs.
The first time she noticed anything missing, it was a single earring. Both were there when she started dressing but, in less time than it took to blink, one had gone.
When she eventually abandoned the search, she couldn’t find her comb.
Pendred looked as well, but to no avail. Between then and the Sabbath, every metal object they owned vanished. At first, Pendred thought it must be jackdaws, but when heavy plates evaporated as well he could only blame it on witchcraft.
The priest performed an exorcism on their home and what remained of their belongings. When they left, Clotha prayed that the malevolent spirit had moved on.
Her hopes, however, lasted only until the middle of the next morning when she took a cracked plate to the pit in their garden. The last time Pendred broke something, she noticed it was almost full. She remembered clearly, since he promised to dig her another and still hadn’t, despite regular reminders. The level had dropped considerably. When Pendred came home, it was less than half full.
Two days later, he found her sobbing on their doorstep. She was cooking their evening meal when the cauldron, the food inside and all their remaining crockery, disappeared as she watched.
The priest returned and brought reinforcements. After a week-long vigil, they left. There was, they said, nothing more to do. Evil lived among them. They recommended burning down the house and starting again elsewhere. Pendred took his wife in his arms and declared his intention to seek a second opinion, whereupon she reminded him of his friends at the top of the hill.
“And that, gentlemen, is why I’m here”.
Aelthord looked at his friend, lines of sorrow etched deeply into his wise old face. He turned to Haegwel.
“Did you ever hear such a tale? We shall need to pray on it”.
“I concur”, his companion replied, although Pendred sensed a lack of conviction in his response. “Is that someone at the door?”
“Possibly, I didn’t hear it. Stay where you are. I’ll get it”.
With the old man gone, Haegwel threw Pendred a conspiratorial glance.
“I have an idea”.
Pendred leaned forward in his chair and implored the man to tell.
“The brotherhood considers my building work most bothersome. I, too, am tired of it, but believe it’s almost done. Your problem presents the perfect opportunity to test my calculations”.
“And if they’re wrong?”
Haegwel shuddered. “I prefer to think they are. Come with me”.
The monk placed a candle on the small desk in his room, and Pendred saw every spare inch of space was full of manuscripts. Haegwel picked up a long, straight stick and pointed at a drawing nailed to the wall.
“We are here”.
The monk moved his stick upward and to the left.
“I’ll need your help to move my carriage up to this area, here. I hid it in the barn when I arrived. It’s large, and quite heavy. I can’t shift it alone anymore. The brothers know nothing about it, so it must remain our secret. If you are agreeable, we should fetch it immediately”.
Haegwel’s carriage sat beneath an accumulation of hay and other detritus which they shovelled to the floor. Eventually, they reached a layer of thick green fabric, fastened with stout cord.
“We’ll leave it wrapped up, in case anyone sees, and take it through the new back door. How timely, I only knocked it through last month. The brothers don’t know about it yet, or the staircase between the outer and inner walls. Can you manage?”
Pendred grunted, reluctant to admit it was taxing his strength to its limit. Once inside, they lifted it onto a wooden platform.
“Wait here”, Haegwel said. “When I drop the ropes, hook them onto these rings. When I give the word, pull the rope with the leather binding to lift it onto the balcony and I’ll guide it in”.
“What’s the word?”
“God, of course, don’t you know anything? In the beginning, and all that”.
Before long, they had winched it up to the second floor. They slid it another twenty feet along the passageway until Haegwel stopped by an alcove.
He removed the fabric and revealed a strange-looking chair made of wood and metal. On the back was a huge disc, upright and resplendent with painted symbols, joined to other sections with rods and metal string.
“How does it move without wheels?”
Ignoring the question, Haegwel produced a red metal can and pushed its long spout into various holes around the contraption. He stepped back, looking excited, if apprehensive, and asked Pendred to push it into the alcove.
“It fits perfectly”, said Pendred, surprised.
“Of course, I measured it myself. Let’s see if it still works”.
Haegwel climbed aboard and gestured to Pendred to join him.
“It’ll be a squeeze, but we’ll manage”.
Haegwel grabbed a handle and rocked it into position. Tiny points of light appeared, shining like no candles Pendred ever saw. He heard a noise from behind and turned his head. The disc turned slowly at first, then sped up, and the chariot shook violently.
“Whatever happens, stay exactly where you are until I tell you it’s safe. Don’t move, do you understand?”
Pendred held the bar before him with no intention of letting go. The alcove changed suddenly into a brightly painted room, then returned to darkness.
“I don’t want to worry you, but I’m slightly worried about the mid-sixteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. With luck, we’ll have enough speed to get through before Newton invents gravity. Here we go, fingers crossed!”
For the briefest of moments, they hovered in the air with no walls around them, nor any floor beneath. When the building reappeared, they fell three inches and Haegwel expressed considerable satisfaction that it wasn’t further. The museum guidebook he brought with him from the future for reference made no claims regarding architectural accuracy, but somehow got them there unharmed.
The shaking stopped. “We’re here”.
Pendred opened his eyes.
“Quickly, we don’t have long. The guards will already be on their way”.
He passed Pendred a hammer and two sacks. “You’ll find what you’re looking for over there”.
Pendred approached the display cases and spotted Clotha’s comb and earring, along with several items they owned but hadn’t yet missed. He swung the hammer against the glass, which cracked but didn’t yield. Two more strikes and he was through. He emptied the cabinet and moved to the next, which contained most of their cooking utensils and tableware.
While Pendred filled his sacks, Haegwel looked for something to raise the machine above the floor for their return journey to allow for the height differential between the two time zones. He spotted a pair of storage heaters by the windows and dragged them over. Then he pulled a piece of parchment from his bag, dropped it into one of the broken cases, climbed back on board and set the disc spinning again.
Pendred threw the bags into the basket behind the disc, then charged at the largest cabinet. The glass received a blow strong enough to fell a mighty stag, but remained intact. Haegwel insisted he should only take items belonging to him and his family, but Pendred couldn’t resist adding a few extras. The prize treasures eluded him, but sufficient gold went into the bags to ensure Clotha could take the pilgrimage to Rome she yearned for, along with sufficient coins to keep them in comfort from now on.
“Pendred! Here, now!” The lights were on next door. They had seconds at most.
The big man took a last glance at the elusive treasure and jumped on just as the guard entered.
Back at the monastery, they hid the sacks until Pendred was ready to leave. There was, Haegwel said, no need for Aelthord or any of the others to know. Even if the brothers believed their tale, they certainly wouldn’t approve.
After a contemplative walk in the gardens, Haegwel escorted Pendred to the guests’ quarters, where he slept through the bell for early prayers. Soon after waking, he left for home, wishing Aelthord a fond farewell.
The time traveller accompanied him to the edge of the forest.
“The archaeologists”, he began, “will leave you in peace, provided you offer something in return”.
Pendred thought little of bargaining with thieves and bandits, but heard his companion out.
“When you are home, walk thirty steps from your door to the north and fifteen to the east. As close to the spot as you are able, dig a large hole. As your belongings reach the end of their natural life, or wear out and break, place them in the pit. Have it covered over when you’re gone. Then they will leave you and your wife in peace to enjoy your lives”.
“Do you think it will work?”
“I believe so. They are not Vikings. They are good people, scientists like me. They just don’t understand how easy it is to upset the equilibrium of time”.
The monk extended his hand.
“I must leave you now. I intended to stay here, but last night reminded me how much I enjoy travelling. It's calling me on”.
Pendred watched his strange friend walk away and took a last look at the monastery, wondering if he would ever make this journey again.
Then, as if moved by a force unseen, he dropped to his knees and resolved to serve the Lord of Clotha, Aelthord and, possibly, Haegwel for the rest of his days. Was any man ever offered a clearer sign from above?
He and Clotha enjoyed the rest of their days without further interference from archaeologists.
Pendred made good on his vow and rose to great respectability in both the church and society. He learned to read and write, and taught dozens of children, and several adults, to do the same. He invested his wealth wisely, and within a decade he was among the richest men in the county.
At the end of his long life, he summoned his children and passed on Haegwel’s instructions concerning the pit, telling them to add any old junk they didn’t want to hold on to themselves. Then he let go, eager to find Clotha again and meet his Creator, at last.
Summoned from his bed at three in the morning, the curator looked at the document in the broken case and wondered if it was a joke. The parchment was obviously new, and the ink barely dry.
When the police left, he and the guard walked together to the car park.
“Ted, do you know where we can find a shovel?”
“There’s one in the van, I think”.
“Can you bear any more excitement tonight?”
“You mean, treasure hunting?”
“I do. I was on that excavation and remember exactly where we found it. I took my family for picnics there until they begged for a change”.
“What are we waiting for? Hop in!”
They drove to Bentley’s Pasture, where the curator paced out the steps. He pointed to the spot and Ted dug with enthusiasm. At sunrise, his shovel struck something metallic, and he stopped. Then they looked for the farmer and found him milking the cows.
The curator broke the news. “I think we’ve found something in your field”.
“Oh no, not again!”
Six months later, the Foster Gallery reopened. Clotha’s earring made a welcome reappearance, along with her comb. Unable to return the items he sold to invest in education and travel, Pendred replaced them with items from a list which Haegwel handed him when they parted, and filled dozens of gaps in the historical record.
Most intriguing of all was a previously unknown manuscript, stashed inside a metal box for protection down the centuries. Its author describes a magical journey through time on a chariot drawn by angels and predicts the modern museum with uncanny accuracy. Since its discovery, historians have engaged in robust debate concerning its authenticity. The curator believes it is genuine. Having read the note which languishes among the evidence the police removed that night, he fancies it contains more than a grain of truth. On that matter, however, he keeps his own counsel. Which is often, however tempting the alternative, the wisest thing to do.