How far will this place go? Cecily wondered as she crested yet another hill. She stepped carefully around an obstacle and stopped, squinting into the lingering white fog. She looked down at her compass, then with a sigh slung her backpack to the ground and began digging into it, searching for her guidebook. Somewhere ahead of her, a few birds were squabbling over mates or food or territory. Aside from their raspy voices, the entire area was heavy with silence. Cecily squinted again into the fog and, with a pleased little “Hmph!” forged ahead. Her booted feet took her to the wide marble base of her intended destination and she circled it once to take in every detail. The mausoleum in front of her was worked in a French gothic style with carved marble columns, a small, dirty rose window, and mini-buttresses at the top of tall pillars which balanced a decorative entablature. Topping the structure was a statue of a robed female who looked suspiciously like Lady Justice. Cecily cast a wary eye towards the statue as she bent again to rummage through her backpack.
Her fingers at last closed upon a suede pouch, which she withdrew and unrolled, displaying a collection of shining lock-picking tools. Cecily no longer heeded the sprawling cemetery behind her, but directed her focus to the immense bronze doors with their intricate work. A few moments of expert ticking and scratching and the heavy bolt clacked satisfyingly in the door. Cecily put away her tools and pulled on the massive handle. It swung open without complaint, and Cecily peered into the gloomy stillness. On the wall immediately opposite, three large and imposing faces bespoke Life, Death, and Immortality. Cecily noticed with a wry grin that the Life and Death faces showed some signs of weather and age, but the Immortality face shone with youthful vigor, faithfully rendered by the artist’s skilled hand. On the left and right walls from floor to ceiling, narrow shelves held shrouded figures that had been laid to rest years and years ago—the immediate family of the last Duke who lay entombed in the enormous black sarcophagus before her.
She stepped boldly into the mausoleum, scanning each wall and noting how fresh the work in here appeared—due to the preservation of darkness and dryness, she supposed. The small door that led to the family crypt was situated below the Death face, its ominously closed eyes and shushing finger over its marble lips marking the entrance appropriately. Cecily’s hand idly brushed the cold sarcophagus with its intricate religious carvings as she thought about what to do next. She needed to figure out where the Duke had instructed the key to the crypt be kept. Of course, those instructions had been carried out some 500 years earlier, so this would be no small task. Cecily now drummed her fingers on the sarcophagus, and looked down at the carvings as she did so. The motif of Life, Death, and Immortality was reiterated here, only in the form of vines and depictions of bountiful harvest that wound around crosses and some Old English text carrying a blessing for the dead. Cecily was still tracing the carvings with her fingertips, when she felt rather than saw an unusual seam in the stone. Her fingers anxiously flew to it and she gently pulled until a rectangular chunk of the ancient sarcophagus came off in her hand revealing a narrow shelf and large heavy key that had obviously been untouched for over half a millennia.
The prison-like door swung open with only brief protest and Cecily paused before entering the inky blackness. In one hand she held a heavy flashlight and she played it around the walls, ceiling, and floor. Two skulls on a slightly raised slab in the middle of the narrow hallway greeted her, their sightless eyes peering into eternity. The silence down here was deafening, and the air of the complete stillness of death that clung to each surface and invaded the intangible black space of the short hallway was stifling. Cecily felt little prickles of excitement and a brief shiver raced down her back. “Screwing her courage to the sticking place” as it were, she stepped onto the paving stones that had not borne a human foot since the 1500s, she began a slow, almost reverent journey towards the burial cells. The older members of the Duke’s family were down here, most of them long reduced to dust. The first cell, with its low door carved into stone, was lined with shelves similar to the mausoleum above, about 10 to a wall. These shelves were carved with the names of the occupants, which Cecily thought was helpful. She marveled at several of the still-crisp carvings and, after reading each of the names, she moved on to the next cell. Her search took her into the heart of a seemingly endless number of chambers, the stillness broken only by her shuffling steps. The lonely beam from her flashlight informed her eyes that the crypt actually had a bend ahead. Cecily prayed she would find the correct chamber soon—the longer she stayed down here, the more the ill feeling in her stomach grew. After what seemed an eternity, her light flashed over five letters at waist level that caused her heart and breath to quicken. “Here lies HENRY,” she read aloud, the sound was quickly swallowed by the suffocating blackness behind her.
Praying this was the correct Henry, Cecily carefully reached onto the burial shelf and pressed gingerly against the shroud. The bones had not quite finished decomposing and were brittle beneath her touch. Her probing hand moved towards where the dead man’s chest would have been. There. Something cold and extremely hard became apparent and she carefully, albeit eagerly, pulled aside the ancient shroud. Glimmering beneath the remnants of hands crossed at the breast was the most beautiful sight Cecily could have wanted.
The lost cover of the Book of Kells.