“Cote-Hanger Abbey”


Two days later, Rocky and Moose got off the plane at Bratislove airport. Huge, craggy mountains loomed in the very near distance, and the two Flatlandians exchanged wary but awestricken glances. The stretch limo zoomed through the foothills, then slowed nearly to a crawl as it wended its weary path up corkscrewed roads, higher and higher into the heavily wooded vastness. Where there were no trees, there were rocks, and the car occasionally veered around boulders that had rolled down to block the road.

After almost two hours’ travel, they turned off the, relatively, paved road and into a graveled drive. Their path rose and dipped across the mountainside for over a mile, then the heavy forest parted, and the car passed between two tall, round columns topped with angels, their wings spread behind, a sword in the upraised hand of one, a book in that of the other, also raised. Both free hands they held forward, palm up, beckoning. Just beyond, the drive wended along the top of a bare, boulder-strewn ridge, a natural, inclined causeway to the abbey gates.

The abbey sat on a flat promontory, with steep downward slopes on three sides, at the base of a towering cliff. Seen from the causeway, the roofs, spires, and chimneys of the sprawling structure were silhouetted, dark and foreboding against the setting sun. Moose and Rocky leaned forward to peer through the windscreen. Harry smiled and bent toward them.

“Those web photos really don’t do it justice, do they?”

“Gawds, no,” Moose said. “It looks like something out of a horror film.” She blinked, then grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.”

Harry waved a hand. “A few companies have shot exteriors here, but as far as we know, nothing has ever been filmed inside. Probably just as well. Veronika wouldn’t like hordes of movie people traipsing all over her corridors.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Don’t start, Harry.” Eleanor glared at him, then patted Moose’s arm. “Pay no attention to the boy with the big mouth.”

“Why?” Moose looked at Freddy. “Who’s Veronika?”

“She was the last Mother Abbess,” Freddy said. “She died just before the abbey was shut down. Some say it was suicide, some say a broken heart.”

“Why did they shut down the abbey?” Rocky said.

“The Church backed the wrong horse during the War of the Succession,” Eleanor said, “and the new king, Rupert, retaliated quite strongly. He confiscated Church treasuries as war reparations, levied special taxes on them, and generally made life miserable for Universalists.”

Rocky nodded. “I did read something about that in history class. People could be pretty nasty to each other back then, couldn’t they?”

The general, who had said little during the ride, chuckled and nodded. “They still can be, young lady, but hopefully not to you.”

She smiled. “I always seem to be among very nice people who want to protect me, sir.”

He nodded. “You must keep that in mind while you are here. Old houses such as this can be treacherous if you fail to heed the advice given you.”

“Yes, sir.”

She felt vaguely as if she had been told off for something, though she had no idea what. They passed through the front gate, an enormous affair of stonework, wooden beams, and iron bars. Just beyond a wide, paved court loomed the front of the abbey. It was three stories high, faced with granite blocks, the roof all but flat. Hideous black gargoyles crouched at the corners and along the edge, their great mouths open to discharge rain water. There were frayed bits of rope hanging off here and there, some with the remnants of wicker baskets still attached. The windows were numerous, but tiny and deeply set into the stonework, and the double doors at the entry hardly measured up to the proportions of the building as a whole.

Still, when both doors swung inward at once, the opening proved sufficiently large to permit the egress of a small platoon of servants. They trooped out to greet the family and gather luggage. Eleanor accompanied them as Rocky and Moose followed the two footmen who carried the luggage down the long entrance hall and up a wide stairway.