Ackley surveyed the plot, his narrow eyes glancing over each of the men hauling bricks and mixing the mortar.
This will be a fine church, he tells himself, a very fine church.
His gaze landed upon Carlyle, who seemed to be idling once again. Carlyle stood with his back to the plot looking across the dirt road. Confounded fool, thought Ackley and stomped through the thick of working men.
“Carlyle! Why do I see no work from thee yet again!?” He shouted almost directly into Carlyle’s ear who cowered in Ackley’s presence. Ackley was a tall, broad man who towered over the small boney frame of Carlyle.
“Forgive me,” squeaked Carlyle with his head bowed, “It was a moment of weakness, nothing more.”
“Why does thou look across the way with such yearning? Maybe you no longer wish to work here Carlyle and would rather busy yourself over yonder?” The men around the plot could see Ackley was getting vexed, so they worked that bit harder so as not to suffer the same fate.
“No sir, I am happy with my work here. I had a dream is all,” Carlyle said looking up from under his brow.
“A dream? How silly of me Carlyle! I didn’t know I was paying you to dream. Pray tell, what took place in this dream?” Ackley snorted, the men smiled wryly knowing Carlyle to be too simple to pick up on his mocking tone.
“Well sir, it was about this Church we are building. In my dream it is in the wrong place.”
“Wrong place!? Never once before have I ever been told by those in charge of purse strings that their building has been placed wrongly or askew. What makes a fool such as yourself feel in a position to question me?” The men’s smiles dropped, Ackley was again angry and they wished for Carlyle to cease his ramblings.
“It was but a dream nothing more, I shall get back to work.” Muttered Carlyle trying to return to his brickwork.
“No, come now Carlyle, thou have started your fanciful tale, continue with it before going back to your toil.” Ackley folded his arms and blocked Carlyle’s path back to his work. Carlyle’s shoulders dropped, realising his foolish mouth had got him in trouble once again. He let out a long deep sigh, before continuing to recount his dream.
“Well sir, we were all at work, building the Church over there whilst where we stand now a great battle was taking place. There seemed to be a King, a great warrior clad in crimson armour leading the charge against his enemies. He was fearsome, brandishing a huge blade that cut down enemies in a single stroke. The enemy surrendered, but the King did not yield and executed them all, mounting their heads on stakes. There were some who stayed loyal to his frenzied cause, yet many implored him to relent. The King paid them no mind, choosing instead to execute some of those who stood up to him. He refused their burial, instead mounting their heads alongside those of his enemy, their bodies cast to the swine roaming the fields.” Carlyle paused as he could see Ackley grimacing in disgust.
“No king that I know of has fought in these fields Carlyle, you need to spend less time idling and concocting such twisted stories!” barked Ackley.
“I said he looked like a king, but could not be certain. I know of no mutiny against any of our kings, however this is what came to pass in my dream. When night fell on the battlefield, those angered by his actions went out into the fields and rounded up the pigs. They were now frenzied and had a taste for blood. The soldiers ushered the pigs towards the door of the King’s tent, and to those of his loyal generals. The pigs rushed in, biting and chewing at those inside. The soldiers prevented their escape, listening to the screams of the king and his men as the pigs devoured their still living flesh. When the deed was done, they burned the tents with the pigs inside, so no trace remained. When dawn broke, they swore an oath of silence and returned home telling stories of a sneak attack by enemies at night. No one ever returned to this field, fearing it was now damned.”
Carlyle finished, Ackley’s face remained contorted in that of disbelief and anger.
“Back to work Carlyle! This will be the last time your daydreaming keeps you from tasks. Any more idling and you are off the plot. Are we clear Carlyle?” A nod from Carlyle who scurried off was all Ackley needed.
With this, Ackley marched back through the plot. He ladled some water from the barrel and drank, watching for the next man to dare defy his orders.
“Damned,” he snorted to himself, shaking his head.
That night, there came a rap on the door to Ackley’s hut, waking him with a start. His left arm was weighed down, preventing him from sitting up. He turned to see the large outline of Edith lay upon his arm. Recounting his steps, he realised he had once again been to the tavern spending his money on ale, and whatever left over he’d used to procure her services. There came another knock, this time louder and more urgent. He yanked at his arm to release it from under her, and she grunted as he pulled free. He put on some trousers and made towards the door. Another knock came.
“Yes, yes, I’m coming, who comes at this ungodly hour!?” he bellowed, lifting the latch and opening the door enough to see outside, but prevent anyone from looking in, particularly upon his guest. Two night-watchmen stood before him, each clasping a pike in their hand. Trouble, thought Ackley, trying to recall if he’d come to blows with anyone at the tavern.
“Are you the foreman for the Church?” questioned the front most watchman.
“I am, what of it?” said Ackley, squinting to focus on their faces.
“There has been a disturbance at the plot, at first we thought thieves, yet nothing appears to have been taken…” The watchman said, breaking off realising he sounded foolish.
“Nothing of value taken, yet you saw fit to trouble me? Do you not know I am friends with the Constable?” Ackley snarled.
“Yes sir, however this will set you and your men back some time.” Replied the watchman, not taking kindly to Ackley’s tone, “The foundations you laid have been moved. They now sit broken on the other side of the road.”
A headache Ackley didn’t realise he had from ale now bloomed in his forehead as his anger grew.
“Have the culprits been caught?” he questioned, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“No sir, no one saw or heard anyone. We only discovered this when on our rounds,” answered the watchman.
“To move the work we’ve done so far would take many men! It can’t have just done so of its own accord. What am I to tell those who have paid handsomely for this work to be undertaken!?” Despite his sleep and drink addled state, Ackley thought quickly, “Keep watch for the rest of the night. I can’t afford any more work than is necessary to be undone. I also need you to round up my men, speak with Tomkin first as he will know who to gather. Have them meet me there at sunrise. We need to undo this mess as soon as there is daylight. Away now!” Ackley slammed the door shut, turning to see Edith now sat up on his bed. His lip curled and he unlocked the door again.
“You can take your coin and leave,” he hissed, “I’ve business to tend to and you are in the way.” He busied himself, whilst an angry Edith dressed and left.
Ackley paced the plot awaiting the arrival of his bleary-eyed men, most now arriving as the sun peeked over the hills. Up the road sauntered Carlyle, clearly in a daze at getting up earlier than usual. Ackley growled.
“Nice of you to grace us with your presence,” Ackley said as Carlyle passed him, “any more dreams you wish to share?” he mocked, drawing sniggers from those gathered. Carlyle sheepishly blended into the crowd, awaiting instruction.
“As you can see, your efforts yesterday were in vain. It would seem someone is seeking to sabotage our work with every bit of stone and mortar now lying in ruin. The night watch caught no culprit and heard no noise. This puts us behind time, and we need to catch up. If anyone knows of why this happened or indeed who did it, then speak with me.”
“Pigs,” came a voice from the back. There were a few chuckles from amongst the men.
“Who spoke?” boomed Ackley, silencing the mirth. Oswin, an elderly man stepped forward through the crowd.
“I did. The plot is covered in pig tracks,” he said. Each man looked down. Sure enough, as their eyes surveyed the ground, individual tracks weaving and criss-crossing around the plot became apparent. It was impossible to tell how many separate sets there were, but it was clear to see there were more than one.
“Would you have us believe pigs did this Oswin?” retorted Ackley, again drawing murmurs of amusement.
“I said no such thing, I merely stated that pigs have been here, as recent as yesterday.”
Ackley’s eyes flashed to Carlyle. “Does it not seem a strange coincidence that only yesterday you were speaking of pigs on this damned land, and the Church should not be built here?”
Many of the group turned to look at a terrified Carlyle, the colour gone from his face.
“Sir it was only a dream, a twisted story as you said,” Carlyle pleaded, “I had no hand in this!”
“Then it is settled,” grinned Ackley, “As the watchmen let us down, we protect this plot ourselves starting this very eve, with Carlyle taking first watch.”
With everyone’s accusatory eyes fixed on him, Carlyle saw no use in contesting Ackley’s decision, instead taking himself off to the other side of the road to begin dragging back the ruined foundations.
The men worked long into the afternoon replacing the work they had completed the day before, with everything back to as it was by sunset. The last rays of daylight stretched out across the fields. Ackley called time, and everyone filed past Carlyle, readying himself for a night under the stars. Each had their own way of offering threatening encouragement to ensure he stayed alert.
Carlyle sat with his back to a small wall on the edge of the plot. He drew his knees up to his chest under a big woollen cloak, and settled in for the night.
Next morning, Ackley was first back to the plot. Immediately he knew something was wrong, once again shards of destroyed foundation lay strewn about the place. There were drag marks leading out across the road, leading to chunks of masonry scattered into the grass. There was no sign of Carlyle.
“Carlyle!” screamed Ackley. His eyes darted searchingly around the plot. “Carlyle!” he repeated.
A few beams from a woodpile clanked to the ground on his right. From behind it peered a muddy faced Carlyle, eyes bulging out of his head with fear. Ackley clenched his teeth and marched over, dragging him up by the collar. He thumped Carlyle in the stomach before going nose to nose with him.
“Speak, you wretched coward!” he spat into Carlyle’s face, “Speak as to why you have allowed this to happen again or so help me God!”
Carlyle held his hands up in defence, gulping for air, winded by the punch.
“Oswin was right…it was…pigs,” Ackley gripped tighter at his collar, “They came for me…tore at my clothes…I hid from them. They did all this…Dragging, snatching and pulling at the bricks. They did it.” Ackley drew back and swung a fist right into Carlyle’s jaw, sending him sprawling into the dirt.
“Liar! You are telling me that swine came in, ran you down then proceeded to destroy the work of my men!? You must think me a fool!” He lurched forward to attack again. Carlyle, quickly rolled out of the way and gathered himself up, his hand clutching at his face.
“I tell only the truth! It was pigs I tell you! Same as my dream, same as what Oswin said, pigs!”
Ackley lurched forward, causing Carlyle to back away, keeping a safe distance.
“Pigs!” Carlyle shouted, before turning and running off down the road. Ackley picked up a chunk of brickwork and hurled it after him.
“Useless idling bastard! If I see thee around here again, woe betide you!” he roared, but it was all for nothing. Carlyle was away out of sight.
When the rest of the men started to arrive to see the fresh damage, Ackley wasted no time in pinning the blame on Carlyle. He again heeded the importance of restoring the foundation work, and that tonight, just in case Carlyle returned with others, he himself would take watch along with others to fend off the culprits. He picked four of his most reliable men; Litton, Marsden, Ransford and Wheeler, indicating they were to stay on after dark. With that, he set them to work, still raging and desperate for Carlyle to return so he could finish him off.
Night fell, and the five men waited. Each clutched at a tool, whether it be a hammer, scythe or pitchfork ready to take on any would be saboteur. Torches burned at all four corners of the plot, casting enough light for them to see any breach of the perimeter. For the most part they sat in silence, only occasionally breaking into whispered conversation about tales they had heard, every time being silenced by Ackley.
“Enough with your fairytales,” he would hiss, and return to looking out into the darkness. Slowly but surely sleep would take them all. Try as Ackley might, to rouse everyone with a prod or nudge, he too succumbed in the early hours falling into a deep slumber.
They awoke to the sound of movement nearby. The torches had extinguished, so only the light from the moon and stars allowed them to see in the dark of night. Grunts and the scraping of stone could be heard. In the darkness, shapes could be seen working their way through the plot, one a few yards from the group.
“Pigs,” whispered Litton, incurring a rap around the head from Ackley.
“Silence your mouth, or I shall do it for thee,” he threatened. The shadowy shape nearest to them stopped upon hearing Ackley. It turned and started to shuffle towards them. Ackley, gripped the handle of his pitchfork tightly, ready to strike should he need to.
Every man drew breath and held it as the shadow approached. As it got within touching distance, it started to grunt, slowly at first, then the pace quickened as the pitch rose, culminating in loud long squeals. The noise seemed to rouse the other shapes shuffling through the plot, and they all turned and made their approach towards the men, who were now instinctively starting to back away from where they sat, dragging themselves along the ground.
Only Ackley remained in place, he turned and glared at the men in the dark, the moonlight catching off the whites of his eyes under his deep furrowed brow. The creature continued its squeals and came even closer to where Ackley sat. He brought himself to his feet, pitchfork still in hand. The creature was now within striking distance, as the rest ever got ever nearer. Ackley, hoisted the pitchfork high above his head, then brought it crashing down on the beast that stood before him. The pitchfork hit its target, and remained in place, jolting in Ackley’s hand as the creature started to thrash, its squealing continued but now seemed slower and more drawn out. Ackley pressed at the pitchfork causing it to slide deeper into his prey, and after a few seconds the creature moved no more.
The shadowy shapes that had been encroaching on their position now stopped in their tracks, each sensing something had happened. They let out a squeal in unison, before turning and running. Silence fell upon the plot.
Litton grabbed one of the torches and cast the light over the kill. At their feet lay a large wild pig, the pitchfork buried deep into its skull, its eyes wide and mouth agape. Blood pooled in the mud under its hairy black body. Litton threw down his hammer.
“Like I said…pigs,” and turned and sat on a nearby stack of bricks. The others cast their eyes to Ackley, who remained focused on the pig. Each man now questioned his words, especially over Carlyle. They’d seen it with their own eyes, pigs were to blame.
“Knife,” wheezed Ackley, trying to catch his breath following the exertion of striking the pig. No one responded, “Knife!” he shouted, and this time Ransford conceded, drawing a small hunting knife from his belt and placing it into Ackley’s outstretched palm. Ackley swallowed hard, yanked the pitchfork from the pig’s skull then swooped down upon it, setting to work. They could hear the knife snag through the flesh, catching and dragging on the fat and cartilage, finally ending with a sickening crack of bone. Ackley stood, this time holding the severed head of the pig high towards the light of the torch, his hands and forearms caked in blood. The tongue of the pig lolled from the side of its mouth, its eyes still wide open. Ackley grinned, pleased with his work. He took the pitchfork, stabbed it into the ground in the centre of the plot and then mounted the pigs head onto the handle.
“A warning to the rest of the sounder should they wish to return!” He proclaimed as he barged past the men, scooping up water from the barrel with a bloodied hand and splashing it across the back of his neck. He wiped the blood from Ransford’s knife before tossing it back to him.
“Skin it Ransford,” he ordered, “Marsden, start a fire. We’ll feast upon it, so that any of its kin watching from the darkness knows what to expect should they dare try to venture on to this plot again!”
Ransford skinned the headless body of the pig, Wheeler fashioned a spit and Marsden stoked a fire. The pig was mounted and cooked. Ackley took great delight in carving slices of pork and eating it whilst looking out into the night, willing the pigs to defy his warnings.
“Take your fill men, you’ll need the strength. Tonight we return to finish off our unwelcome visitors.” The men looked at each other dejectedly. They knew that refusing would mean no more work, yet also knew that killing the pigs would mean more food on the table for their families. They ate, and then each took a hunk of meat home to give to their wives, and to get what little sleep they could before returning to the plot the next day.
Ackley vomited violently against a wall as he made his way up the road from his hut. A few villagers who were already going about their business, hurried past him, each suspecting Ackley was fighting with another bellyful of ale from the tavern the night before. He glared at anyone who dared stop and stare at him for too long, wiping yellowy strands from his chin with the back of his hand.
“Filthy swine,” He croaked, as pain coursed through his stomach, his hand instinctively clutching at it to cope with the agony. He slowly made his way to the plot, and found Ransford, Marsden and Wheeler lay on the floor surrounded by some of the other men. They had vomit down their fronts and seemed just as in pain as he. Litton was nowhere to be seen. Ackley straightened himself and walked towards the men, trying his best to hide his pain.
“What’s all this idling about? Did you all not see what happened to that cumberworld Carlyle? Get about your work!” he staggered to the water barrel and gulped long and hard from it. A few men sought to remove the pig head still hanging from the pitchfork in the middle of the plot, which now had a cloud of flies encircling it.
“Leave that be!” barked Ackley, “That stays there until the rest of those foul swine see not to disturb our work!” He stumbled back against a wall, the fires in his belly still burning.
Ransford, Marsden and Wheeler were fit for nothing. Try as he might to get them to put some effort into their work, they would either vomit or run out into the brush to empty their bowels. Ackley relieved them of their duties ordering them to go home and ready themselves for the night, and to tell Litton to turn up, or not bother coming back again.
“Why can’t the other men see to the swine? We’re as sick as dogs!” protested Wheeler. Ackley grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him close, the stench of another man’s vomit making Wheeler want to heave again, “We are coming back, because we know what to expect. I’m not explaining to these other fools how best to prepare, when we ourselves know already. Now get home, get well and get back here at sundown!” Ackley released his grip, shoving Wheeler back into the other two men. They made off down the road. He steadied himself against the water barrel, struggling to lift his head to survey the site.
He awoke late afternoon after a troublesome sleep under a tree. The pain made sure he only caught a few minutes here and there before another wave would crash against the walls of his stomach causing him to wake and clutch his knees to his chest until it subsided. The vomiting had stopped, a small mercy for which he was thankful for.
The men on the plot had taken full advantage of his predicament. Knowing he was wrong about Carlyle had damaged their respect and reduced their fear of him. Now, seeing him sleeping on the job, only furthered their dislike and diminished their loyalty to the cause. They had taken breaks as they saw fit, drank heavily from the barrel and went at their own pace. Not much in the way of work had taken place, but they didn’t care. Each were prepared to take a stand against Ackley if he dared have the nerve to question their efforts. Ackley surveyed the plot as they left, his face crumpled into a frown.
“See you tomorrow Ackley!” shouted one worker, “What pig is it tonight? Those in the field or the sow in the tavern?” This drew laughs from most of the men. Ackley held his tongue. Once the swine were dealt with, he’d turn his attentions to those who mocked him.
As night fell, Litton, Ransford, Wheeler and Marsden arrived to a pale, sickly faced Ackley.
“I feel like I’ve been hollowed out,” moaned Litton who fell silent when he caught Ackley’s angered glare trained on him.
“Same as last night gentlemen, we put torches at the corners, but also one in the middle, just to be certain in case we need to strike. No sleeping, you should have had plenty during your break this afternoon.”
As instructed, the men constructed and lit the torches placing them where Ackley had suggested. The sky was clear, which put a chill on the night air, but the moon was a welcomed additional light source cast across where they sat.
Hours passed. The silence was occasionally broken by the hoot of an owl or screech of a fox, briefly causing the men to rear up from their positions. Ackley shivered, his cloak wrapped around the lower half of his face keeping his lips and nose warm, his eyes peering over the top, darting in every direction waiting for the arrival of the beasts.
His ears pricked up, thinking he’d heard something. He spread his arms out across the men to bade them complete silence. There was the sound again, a low grunt out on the edge of the plot.
“They come,” whispered Ackley, rising with his pitchfork. The grunt was met with others from every side, approaching and closing in on where the men stood, yet they could see no shadows casting against the torchlight.
“They know we are here, I never thought pigs to be an intelligent creature,” Ackley sneered. They slowly walked to the torch in the centre of the plot, ready to strike should a snout or trotter dare emerge from the dark. Wheeler stumbled on a rock causing him to slip, clanking his scythe to the ground.
“To your feet!” hissed Ackley. The noises along the edge of the plot ceased. We have been heard, he thought. The world around them lay silent and remained so for what seemed like an age. Each man’s eyes bore into the darkness. Nothing moved. Uneasiness grew within them. The illness that had ravaged them during the day now aided knots of pain forming in their bellies, their hearts pounding faster in their chests. They drew in large breaths, as if their bodies had forgotten how to breathe.
The torches went out. Not all, only those at the edges of the plot. With the dying of the lights came horrific squeals echoing from all sides. Not one of them had ever heard such awful wails from pigs before. It came from everywhere, loud and shrill on the night air. Marsden was the first to buckle, throwing his tool to the ground, taking one look at the others, and then ran off into the darkness. Ackley called after him, but it was no use, the squeals drowned out his bellows. The noise encroached, getting louder still, each man’s arms trembling as they held their pitchforks, hammers and scythes out towards the blackness in a futile attempt to ward off what approached.
The wails began to fade, only to be replaced by a different noise. A clink-clink of metal upon metal, regular and rhythmical. Ackley tried to place the sound, knowing he had heard similar before.
“S-s-soldiers,” muttered Litton, struggling to speak. Ackley knew Litton was right, the chinking of chainmail, and the clunk of steel boot. The night-watch weren’t so well equipped, and he knew of no nearby garrison either.
“We’re here protecting our land,” Ackley called out, causing the footsteps to pause, “There were pigs disrupting our work to build a church here, we have no quarrel with you.”
There came no response. Wheeler raised a pointing finger to the edge of the torchlight. Each man turned to look beyond his shaking digit. There, stood five figures, their faces still concealed by the night. Each was dressed in armour and wielding a blade. The foremost, who Ackley presumed was the general had armour that seemed tinged with a different colour, and a blade much bigger than the swords of those that flanked him. He noticed blood on the blade.
“Our fight is not with thee, we would be grateful if those blades be put to use ridding us of the foul swine that blights our efforts, would we not men?” Ackley said turning to his group, who all nodded, their faces white with terror. He looked back at the soldiers, the lead figure tossed something into the circle of light that thudded and bounced, coming to rest at to the feet of Ackley. There looking up at him from the grass was the head of Marsden. Before he had time to comprehend what he had seen, the final torch went out.
The church was nearing completion. Each man was happy in his work and took pride in what they had achieved. Carlyle stood by the water butt, surveying what they’d accomplished. The spire rose high above the village, a beacon for travellers wandering the roads in search of a bed for the night. The stained-glass windows glinted in the sunlight, magnificent in their design and detail. The gargoyles grimaced overhead along the trim of the church roof, their gnarled and knotted faces frozen in time. Carlyle’s drew his eyes down to the carvings of the saints that adorned the outer wall of the church. Each stood on a stone plinth, looking out from their carved hollow of the church wall. Carlyle, walked along looking at each stopping below Saint Francis and Saint Michael. These carvings did not look out, but down, their gazes fixed on something below them. A stone mason sat on a stool below them put the finishing touches to his work. He stood bringing himself alongside Carlyle.
“Is this to your satisfaction sir?” He asked. Carlyle smiled and patted the mason warmly on the shoulder.
“A fine job, a very fine job.” He replied as they walked away. The effigies of the Saint of Animals and defender of the Church now overlooked the new addition to the wall, a finely carved sculpture of a pig.
Across the road, the first ruined attempts of the church lay overgrown and overlooked. Amongst the bracken, five skulls gathered moss, weeds unfurling through their eye sockets. Nobody set foot there.
Neil Moran lives and works in North West England, and an English graduate from Edge Hill University. Whilst relatively new to fiction writing, he co-owns www.OnClearDays.com with his partner, sharing their passion for the outdoors through articles on walking, hiking and wellbeing.
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