Chapter 6

The Secret Steps

Thursday Week 1

 

         The first thing Robin did the next morning was to peer out of his bedroom window, where he was met by the sight of a clear blue sky, the leaves on the horse chestnut tree fluttering in a light breeze.  Bounding downstairs, he arrived to find his mum placing a large breakfast plate in front of him, consisting of beans on toast, sausage, and egg.
         Totally full, he wheeled his newly-found bike around to the front of the house at a couple of minutes before 9am, so as to be sure not to be late.  Meanwhile his dad appeared through the front door to hand him a small rucksack that was a mix of light and dark blue patches with a zipper compartment on the back and a large sown-on badge of what looked like a badger in a tree and the words Corentin Preservation Society.
         “God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties,” sang Robin’s dad, making no sense whatsoever.  Robin assumed that the sandwiches his mum had made him for lunch were going to be jam ones.  “Oh, and there's a whistle in the outside pocket, in case of emergencies.”  Robin put the bag onto his back as a stray leaf nestled itself in his front tire, and wondered just what sort of emergency could ever require a whistle.

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         Robin sat on his bike and leaned back against the house to wait.  And half an hour later, and he was still waiting.  About to give up, thinking that Georgie had forgotten about their plans, a movement through the hedge at the front of the garden caught his eye.  And sure enough a moment later a bike came skidding around the corner into view.  However, it was not alone.
         Georgie led on a bright red bike with a bell on the front that she was constantly making ting.  Behind her came two other bikes, one lime green and the other a smoky charcoal, causing Robin’s to stare in disbelief as the three of them pulled up in front of him.  “Wondered if it was you,” said the girl on the green bike, her auburn hair tied back in a short ponytail.  “When Georgie told us about the pirate paper you were working on, clever clogs here put two and two together and came up with some mathematical equation.”
         “Well, it wasn't rocket science, was it,” answered the boy with the brown thin-rimmed glasses.  “Visiting from England for the summer and researching pirates.  Duh.”
         “You'll learn to ignore him, just like the rest of us.  Nice to see you again Robin,” said the girl, smiling.  “How's the paper coming?”
         “Hi Millie!  Hi Olwenn!” said Robin, not quite believing what he was seeing.  “It's coming on okay.  Yours?”
         “Yet to start.  Anyway, this is much more fun!” replied Millie.
         “So you do know each other already.  Crazy bananas!” said Georgie, making an arc in the gravel with her back tire.  “Four days on the island and you’ve already met most of the cool people here.  Way to go Sammy Social.”
         Robin was still trying to take everything in.  “How do you all know each other?”
         “We’ve been friends as long as I can remember,” said Georgie, now executing a standing wheelie which turned into a bike flip as the back wheel span out from under her.  “Oops!  Our grandparents are old friends, so we've always just hung out in the summers when I’m here.  Hope you don't mind that I asked them along?”
         “No, totally cool,” replied Robin, putting his own bike aside to help Georgie pick hers up.  “This is great!”
         “Alright, then let's get going,” said Georgie, spinning her bike around.  “We're already late thanks to Millie!” to which Millie put her hand up in acceptance.  And with a yelled goodbye to his parents through an open window, the four of them turned and headed out down the driveway.

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         Their journey that morning took them through back paths all the way from Robin’s house to the main road heading west out of Armorica, where they were able to spread out side by side on the wide concrete cycle path, the rising sun casting a four-headed shadow ahead of them.  “So, Robin, what do you think of our island so far?” asked Olwenn over the noise of the traffic.
         “It's great!” replied Robin, who was starting to regret bringing the rucksack as it stuck to his back.
         “Yeah, lots to do here.  You're going to have a great summer!  Do you know much about Corentin?”
         “A little,” said Robin, finding some relief by pushing out his shoulder blades.  “I read a book from the library back home about it, and then Mr. Carpenter and Mrs. Fitzgerald have told me bits as well.  And I bought a map of the island from the tourist information place.”
         “Nice.  Did you read all about the Breton heritage?” said Olwenn, having to repeat himself due to a large truck going past.
         “The what?” asked Robin, unsure that he had heard Olwenn correctly even the second time.
         “Breton.  Used to be the main language here on the island, but it's pretty much died out.”
         “Really?” replied Robin, glancing off at the fields stretching away to his right.  “I thought Corentin was British.”
         “Yeah, it is, has been for hundreds of years, but it still carries its old heritage.  A lot of the names around the island are Breton.  Corentin means 'hurricane', although it’s also the name of some old Bishop from Brittany.  Nobody really knows which it's named after.”
         “Cool!” said Robin, thinking that Olwenn really must be as smart as Millie had made out.  “Any others?”
         “That's the main one everyone here knows,” said Olwenn.  “We're all taught it in primary school.  Then Armorica is what the area in Brittany is called that speaks Breton, and literally means 'by the sea', so that makes sense.”
         Their conversation continued as they rode on, later turning right onto a narrow road as they followed a sign for Nook's End, before eventually Olwenn motioned over to Robin to point out a large wooden building a little way ahead on their left.  “That's The Seven Witches – super old, and massively haunted!”
         Robin fell behind as the others accelerated away, coasting along towards the building with its pointed roof at the front and twin turrets jutting out behind.  Beyond, a splash of blue announced the western coast of the island, and soon he was approaching the cliff edge with the others, reaching the iron railings that acted as a barrier along the front.
         Leaving their bikes there, Georgie led the way as they walked towards an overlook that reached out directly behind the old building.  Peering over the side, Robin gasped slightly as he looked down at the sheer drop below him, the ocean splashing up against the base of the white cliffs, his heart skipping a beat when Georgie tripped before catching herself on the rail.  With a light sea breeze softening the intensity of the sun, Robin was stunned by how amazing it all looked.  To his left and right he could see the cliffs stretching away in both directions as seagulls swooped around below.  Looking straight out to the west, the land curved back in from both sides, creating what looked like an extremely large bay.
         Millie pointed out towards a small patch of island visible in the distance.  “That's Winter Island.  Our grandparents used to have a summer house there, but they sold it to developers when they were building the Starfish Resort.  We never got to see it, but in the pictures it looks great!”
         “Cool!” said Robin, straining hard to see the island better.
         “Here, let's get a photo before we go,” said Georgie, spinning around and asking an older couple if they would mind taking a shot with her camera.  Rejoining the group, the four of them stood together, smiling in the sunshine as the woman gave advice to her husband, Robin convinced that he was caught in mid-blink.

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         Making their way back towards the path, they walked around the far side of the pub so as Olwenn could show Robin a plaque on the wall, Millie yawning an exaggerated yawn.

The Seven Witches Pub and Inn

Built in 1578 to serve travelers on the roads from Armorica and Hingleton to Pell Menez, the original building was mostly destroyed by fire during the great winter storm of 1813.  Twelve people lost their lives that night, including the Inn keeper and one of his daughters.  Further tragedy was to strike the family, as within a month of its re-opening in 1815 the eldest son was lost to the sea after falling over the cliff edge into Jellyfish Bay while saving the life of a child from Nook's End.  The family sold up shortly afterward, but it is said that those who lost their lives here still walk the hallways of the building’s turrets.

 
         “Wow!” said Robin, letting out a whistle when he had finished reading.  “Is that really true?”
         “Granddad always says that he saw the Inn Keeper walk through a wall when he stayed there as a little boy, but I think he was just trying to scare us.  Pretty cool place though,” answered Millie, punting a stone off into the distance as they walked back to their bikes.

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         Lunch was eaten around the back of The Smuggler's Passage Pub at Nook’s End, where a long garden filled with wooden tables and benches ended in a stunning view out over the ocean.
         Joining a queue at the ordering station, Robin read the menu board with its various types of sandwiches and rolls, watching as first Georgie and then Olwenn and Millie made their selections, before he stepped out of line and followed them to a table at the end of the garden.  As he sat down, it was Olwenn who noticed that he hadn't purchased anything – Robin’s answer being to reach down into his backpack and pull out the foil covered sandwiches that his mum had packed.
         “Nice!  Our parents never have time to make us anything,” said Millie biting into her baguette.
         “Yeah, and Gran has threatened to make me lunch sometimes, but her idea of a good sandwich is pickled eggs and mustard.  Ger-ross!” added Georgie, wrinkling up her nose.  “What sort of sandwich do you have?  If it's got eggs in it, it's going over the side of the cliff.”
         Opening up the foil, Robin was praying to the sandwich gods that there would be no egg.  “Looks like chicken,” he said in a relieved tone.  He wondered where the jam was.
         Dessert was taken in the form of ice cream from Carmichael's, and then they were off onto the cliff path riding northwards.  “Are those more islands like Winter Island?” asked Robin to Olwenn as they rode, pointing away west across the expanse of water below them.
         “Sort of yes, kind of no,” replied Olwenn, freewheeling as he looked away to where Robin was indicating.  “Those five islands form a chain called Charlotte’s Finger, but none of them are inhabited.  Rumor is that a wild old man used to live in a cave on the last one, that long one over there, but that was meant to be forever ago.”
         Passing a crumbling wooden sign that read Smuggler's Cove, 1 mile, they were shortly locking their bikes up together at a low wooden picket fence, before Robin got his first sight of the cove.  He was not disappointed by what he saw.
         Looking down at a sheer drop, the cove itself contained a sparkling sandy beach, large rocks sticking up from the yellow ground here and there like slightly misshapen marbles.  Wave after wave was crashing in on the shore, water shooting into the air.  “Pretty amazing, eh!” said Olwenn as he leaned against the fence next to Robin.  “It’s crazy that a boat could even get in here – imagine what it must have been like during the ambush!”
         Georgie had already made a quick tour of the cliff top, taking photos from various angles for Robin's project, and now gathered them together for a group photo, perching her camera precariously on top of Robin's backpack to point out towards the ocean.

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         Further north along the cliff path there was an old stone tower that Olwenn and Millie knew of, and with the afternoon still young they walked on to show Robin.  In fact it turned out to be more of a ruin than an actual tower, rising only about eight feet into the air.  The walls of huge dark-gray stones were high in places, completely gone in others, but the beginning of the old spiral staircase still stood, leaving Robin’s mind to whir as to what it had once led to.  “Wonder what this was?” he said, as he sat on the highest step, legs dangling over the side where the next one would once have been.
         “No idea,” said Millie, who was climbing the side of a wall.  “Some sort of lookout maybe?  There's lots of mysterious old stuff on the island.”
         After a while Georgie gathered them together for another photo all sat on the steps, before they left the strange ruins behind and made their way back to the cove.  “So, what now?” asked Robin once they had returned, watching as the beach below submitted to the rising tide.
         “Frisbee?” said Millie, flipping a red disc up in the air that she had retrieved from her bag.  “I brought one along just in case!”
         “Yeah, excellent!” said Georgie, stretching to catch it but succeeding only in knocking it away.  “Girls vs. boys.”
         “Oh no,” muttered Olwenn to Robin.  “Millie’s a master with those things.  You any good?”
         “Um, not great,” said Robin, managing to omit the minor detail that he had never actually thrown a Frisbee before in his life.
         As they played though, Robin’s technique improved, to the point that he was consistently getting his throws to go in the air, if perhaps not very accurately.  But it was this growth in confidence that caused the incident.  Arching as far back as possible, the Frisbee flew out of his hand with every ounce of strength he had.  However, instead of flying forward it took off to his right, directly towards the cliff’s edge.
         They all stood and watched as it sailed high, caught the wind, and dropped.  For a moment Robin thought that it was going to stop in time, but his heart sank as it disappeared behind the thick bushes that guarded the sheer drop.
         “Maybe it got caught on the other side?” said Robin as they congregated at the point where it has sailed over.  “I'm really sorry Millie; I thought I was actually getting the hang of it.”
         “Don't fret Bret,” said Georgie, speaking for Millie.  “We've lost a million of these in the past.  That's one throw you've got there, if you could just rein it in a little!”
         Still feeling bad, he jumped up and down to see if there was any sign of it.  “Maybe I can crawl through and see if it got stuck?”
         Millie confirmed that it really didn’t matter but Robin wasn’t going to be deterred, and he dropped to his knees to crawl through a thinner area of the bush.  Pushing on determinedly, he all of a sudden popped out onto tight low grass, no more than four feet from the edge; close enough that he didn’t risk standing and instead twisted over to look backwards at the overgrowth.
         Scanning around, it was when he flipped back over onto his front that he caught a clear flash of red just over the side of the cliff.  Edging forwards, the Frisbee came into view, perched on an area of rock that jutted out from the cliff face.  Creeping onwards, more protruding rocks came into sight, and by the time his head was fully over the side he could hardly believe what he was seeing.  There, starting just a little to his right was what appeared to be broad, deep, stone steps forming a stairway of sorts that went five steps down, the Frisbee lying calmly on the fourth of these.
         “I see it!” shouted Robin, his voice lost to the sound of the wind.  He was now fully caught in two minds.  The sensible, cautious Robin from Upper Knowlford was clearly of the opinion to let it go.  However, the current Robin, after such an amazing day with new friends, was pushing with an urge to return with the Frisbee in hand.  Surveying the large stone slabs that made up the steps, he gauged these to be a good seven feet wide.  Plenty enough room to safely creep down he thought, just need to take it careful.  The current Robin won out.
         Shifting his way a little to the right to get to the first step, he carefully rolled onto his side before bringing his legs around, so that he was now basically sitting, his feet resting on the first step, looking out over the cresting ocean and Charlotte's Finger.  Just don't look down he thought to himself, which he then immediately did, rocking backwards slightly as he saw the sixty foot drop down to the frothing rocks below.
         Gathering himself, he refocused and edged himself along, changing his direction to face down the steps, his left side tight against the rough cliff wall.  Moving forward, he continued along and down, soon reaching the fourth step, the Frisbee just out of reach to his right.  Slowly he lay onto his side, reaching out to drag the disc over.
         Pulling it in, he lay for a moment in the midst of a feeling of triumph, raising his head to savior where he was.  It was at this point that his eyes couldn't believe what they were seeing for the second time in five minutes.  For it turned out that the five blocks of stone didn't merely end.  Rather, they appeared to lead into a cave opening in the side of the rock face.  Staring at it for a few moments, there was no doubting what he was seeing.  This was a stairway into the cliff itself.

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         As he emerged back through the bush, triumphantly holding the Frisbee aloft to the amazement of the others, he recounted what he had just seen.  Discussing what to do, Olwenn was of the opinion that they should wait and come back another day with ropes and safety equipment.  He was quickly outvoted.
         Robin led the way, taking them down the steps and being the first one to the cave entrance.  Carefully using the wall to pull himself upright, he moved inside with his back to the edge until he was a good few feet inside.  The others followed, and in a moment they were all standing together.
         “This is incredible!” said Georgie, her eyes wide as she took in the surroundings.  At their position close to the entrance the sun shone in on them, causing the black interior walls to glisten.  Moving their way into the cave, Robin broke an involuntary shiver as they left the sunlight, before the uneven floor caused Georgie to stumble as the light dissolved into the darkness.
         “I don’t think that we should go any further,” said Olwenn, the gloom around them such that Robin could now only make out his general outline.  “We don't know what's in here, and the floor could fall away at any time.”
         “Captain Cautious does have a point,” said Georgie, tapping the ground with her toe.  “I don’t really trust myself not to trip in the best of conditions, let alone in here.  We've got to investigate though – we should come back tomorrow with flashlights and stuff.”

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         Their plan made, they were soon heading for home, although this time Millie led them on a path inland, following a signpost to Kador.  Olwenn explained to Robin that they were going across to reach the old railway line, which hadn't been in use since the 1970's, but was a great direct route down into Armorica from where they were.
         When they came upon the railway tracks Robin found them to still be visible, if somewhat lost among the grass and weeds, while a broad path ran alongside.  Olwenn pointed out Arnev Hill away to their left, before they turned and it disappeared behind them.
         The biking was slow and it was after 7pm when the kids pulled in to Orchard Drive, having rejoined the pathway just a couple of miles north of where they had left it that morning.  Saying goodbye at the top of his driveway, and confirming one last time the details for the next day, the other three rode off while Robin headed towards the house, noticing his mum disappearing behind curtains at the front window.
         Wheeling his bike around to the back, Robin's dad was sat at the table on the patio, while his mum was already in the kitchen, acting as though she had been in there all along.  “Hello Robin,” said his dad, looking up from the local newspaper, The Corentin Mail.  “Have a good day?  We thought you might have got lost!”
         “Yes, thanks dad!  Excellent day.  Hi mum!” he said, as his mum popped her head out of the doorway.
         Over dinner, which they again ate outside in the warmth of the evening sunlight, Robin told his parents all about his day.  Well, almost all about his day – he thought it better not to mention the cliff steps and the cave.