SOLD by Sam Derby
The smell of burnt mutton and burning wool filled the smoke-dark air. Richard touched the black lesions on the side of his throat absent-mindedly. His mind replayed the words of the song he had heard in the village.
Why do we wander, where can we turn?
Under the moon where the dark flames burn.
Why do we wander, who shows the way?
Come to the wood on the eve of May.
He lofted the brand, sloughing flames and sparks into the shadows. Little was revealed; there was a full moon, but the effect of the thick pall of smoke meant that he could see almost nothing but the glow of the torch itself. He moved forwards gingerly, straining to locate the origin of the roar and crackle of the fire. The black wool of his habit was damp from an hour of pushing his way through the rain-heavy branches of the wood. The landscape was densely packed with saplings, punctuated with the rotten, moss-bound stumps of ancient trees. The undergrowth was lush fern and bracken. It would be easy enough to move through without drawing too much attention to himself, if he were to put out the brand. Just a little further, then...
“Who comes here?”
Richard froze as an oddly familiar voice rang out across the darkness, and dropped the torch hurriedly, hoping that the wet green of the forest floor would smother it. There was a faint sizzling sound as it did so; not nearly loud enough to be heard over the increasingly violent sound of the fire.
“We the chosen,” replied a chorus of voices.
Richard breathed out, at last—he had not been seen. And then the singing began, faintly at first but quickly gathering strength. It was the same song.
Why do we wander, where can we turn?
Under the moon where the dark flames burn.
Why do we wander, who shows the way?
Come to the wood on the eve of May.
This was why he had stolen from St Peter’s Abbey several hours after Compline, when the spring darkness had finally arrived and his fellow monks were taking a few precious hours of sleep before rising for Matins. It was heresy, he had been certain of it; but a heresy of a sort which, for some reason, the Abbott had seemed uninterested in pursuing. Perhaps he had been encouraging Richard to take action himself; perhaps he had not thought it worth stamping down upon. In any case it was too late to turn back now.
Who are the old ones, where do they lie?
Under the greenwood, under the sky.
Who are the old ones, what do they say?
Come to the wood on the eve of May.
The singing was quiet and low, though the words carried clearly over the short distance. Richard reached as close as he dared, crouching low behind a fallen oak. Now he could see them all, in a circle around the pyre, their hands joined. There were ten, maybe a few more, women and men alike dancing naked in the oily smoke. The acrid smell of the burning flesh had intensified and he felt his tears beginning to run as the sound of the singing and the sound of the fire mingled strangely, as if the song came from the fire and the crackle and hum from the dancers around it. He had been hearing this song for some time, waking from sleep in the monastery in the small hours of the morning. Instead of the familiar sound of matins being rung, he had heard words like these, sung in the English of the villagers of the Cuda’s Wold, rather than in the universal Latin spoken by those of his order, or in what passed for French in the town of Gloucester.
One night, when the singing had been at its most intense, shortly after he had been inducted into the community of St Peter, he had sought out tea from the refectory despite the lateness of the hour. From there he had followed the sound up the broad spiral stone stairs towards the star chamber. The next day, as he remembered what he had seen, it had seemed like a dream: looking for all the world like a council meeting, twelve people arrayed around the chamber in their robes; the Lord Mayor, the Baron De Montfort, Akenside the wool merchant, the Abbess of the nearby Priory and numerous others he did not recognise but whose richness of attire suggested wealth and power. At their head the Abbott himself. Why this meeting was taking place at midnight he had not begun to understand. A few years ago he would have been relentless in his pursuit of something that stank so richly of wrongdoing. But things had changed: Richard had sworn an oath of obedience to the Order, and had promised to himself that he had left behind the anger and rash action of his mendicant days. Indeed, he might have forgotten the incident entirely had not the occasional, though fainter, burst of singing awakened him from time to time in the weeks that followed.
How shall we praise them, what shall we give?
That which was passed from the first to live.
How shall we praise them, where shall we pray?
Come to the wood on the eve of May.
The song increased in volume and Richard could feel the temperature around him rising. Ducking beneath the tree trunk for some respite, his face against the cool moss, he considered what to do next. He could feel his choler rising, with the pounding of his heart and the increasing heat within him. Richard would not have been afraid of taking on an individual heretic—he had hunted down his share of them, in the old days of itinerant freedom with Friar Beddowes, his mentor for so long in the days of chaos before he took orders at St Peter’s. He could remember the feeling now, that rush of choler that possessed his soul with bravery, and the thrill of violence that often followed. Together they had hunted down what they had thought were the last vestiges of paganism in the land, until the dark day when rage had overtaken Richard’s reason and conscience entirely. But this was a very different situation—not only was he, rescued from the gallows by the Abbot no less, now part of one of the largest and strictest Orders in the country, outside the monastery walls without permission, but there also seemed to be something deeply organised about this group of worshippers. It did not have the feel of a few family members keeping alive the old gods, or of a local coven sprung up around a particularly charismatic follower of the old ways. The scale of it all, if it were all linked: the length of time he had been hearing the song, that strangely bureaucratic council meeting in the star chamber, of all places, and the Abbot’s apparent lack of concern when Richard had mentioned that he was worried about a group of heretics meeting in the Abbey... might it not somehow be sanctioned anyway, and he be likely to draw the wrath of the establishment if he acted too hastily?
The smell of the meat billowed towards him on the breeze; it was an offering of mutton, he was sure of it, rather than anything more sinister; though burning one of the precious local sheep, source of the wealth of these villages for a hundred years or more, was a significant sacrifice. More so even than some old leper or lunatic they might abduct easily from the fringes of the village, or even from the ruins of one of the abandoned hamlets strewn around the surrounding countryside, the doors of its houses still fresh with the painted red plague cross. Even though they were many, he had little fear that they would seize him, an interloper dressed in the robes of a powerful Order. The song stopped, suddenly, and all that was left was the alternate murmur and roar of the fire. Richard raised his head cautiously. The dancers had stopped too, and sunk to their knees in the soft ground. He had the distinct feeling that something had been summoned. And then with a pricking feeling, as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up at some unseen and unheard prompt, something began to happen.
First, the fire quietened down as if suddenly dowsed, smoking furiously; the still dancers began to repeat a single short note in a low hum. As he looked, he could see that they were staring up as they did so. And then, out of the corner of his eye, Richard thought he could see someone on the edge of the circle, wearing some kind of helmet or crown, looking towards him. He ducked down in an instant; had he been seen? After a few moments in which nothing happened—perhaps he had imagined it in the cloud and darkness—his pulse slowed and he allowed himself to look very cautiously towards the circle once more. There was a cold light descending from the sky above the silent fire, shining through the otherwise impenetrable haze.
“Who has called me here?”
The voice was silver, like the moon; Richard heard it resounding around the ancient wood in the same way that he had heard plainsong resound around the cavernous space of the abbey church. In response, the song began again.
What do you ask for, when will you hear?
Come to our aid in our time of fear.
What do you ask for, what shall we pay?
Come to the wood on the eve of May.
Richard’s skin was creeping as if all the ants and beetles of the wood had chosen this moment to rise from the mould-dark earth and swarm upon him, yet he dared not stand; the unseen speaker, a woman, her voice, sonorous and deep, with that odd mixture of clarity and confusion that comes with great resonance, replied, “I ask only for your souls;” and Richard realised, with a sudden feeling of great dread, that he had missed his chance to escape.
He ducked down even lower in the undergrowth as the silver light encroached upon his hiding place. Any movement now and he would be seen, he was sure of it. The voice had stopped speaking and instead had joined in the humming, bringing a discordant harmony to the single note sung by the worshippers that gave him the strangest feeling throughout his entire being, as if his soul were itching. It grew in volume until the very air around him felt thick with it; the ferns and bracken shook at the sound of it; Richard began to feel physically sick, his head dizzy, and he clung on to the cold soft moss of the forest floor. And then it stopped, suddenly, and he heard in its place a voice that he recognised very clearly, but which he told himself he could not possibly be hearing.
“Lady of the wood,” said the familiar voice, that of a strong man in his sixties with a Normandy accent, “hear our thanks.”
The congregation of worshippers rejoined as one: “Hear our thanks, lady of the wood.”
It could not be him, thought Richard.
“We are supplicants, we are worthless, lady of the wood, and we recognise your majesty and dominion,” said the man.
“We are worthless, lady of the wood,” murmured the worshippers in response.
Richard’s mind was racing. The voice was so familiar; but then, he was dizzy, tired from lack of sleep, the situation was so incredible that he must be confused; it was another similar voice, from another member of the Norman aristocracy perhaps? It could not be the one that he thought it was.
“Lady of the wood,” continued the voice, “we speak to you on behalf of the multitude within our own small dominion, and everything that we offer you ourselves, we also offer you on their behalf; those who toil in the fields, and who are craftsmen and merchants in the towns, and who are soldiers in battle: we offer you them all. Accept our gift.”
“Accept our gift, lady of the wood. Accept our gift, lady of the wood.”
In his prone position, with the unearthly light around him, and the cold earth moulding itself around his body as if it sought to drag him to its bosom, Richard heard those words and knew that he was not mistaken. The voice of a man of power, who had rescued Richard from a life of wandering and purposelessness. It was the Abbot himself.
As he grappled with this realisation, Richard became aware that the other speakers were now audible. Some kind of catechism was being conducted by the strange lady, and as with the singing it was in English, rather than Latin.
She said: “What is the chief end of Man?”
And they replied: “To glorify the Light.”
“What is the Light?”
“The Light is of the morning star.”
“And on whom shall it shine?”
“It shall shine upon all those who give of themselves.”
“And what shall the Light reveal, to those who give what is asked?”
“Power, and glory, for all eternity.”
What was the Light of which they spoke? The morning star in the Bible, thought Richard, the light-bringer, was the fallen angel. The group stood in a circle, with the man that Richard had identified as the Abbot having stepped forward slightly to address something above his head. It was from above that the light appeared to emanate; Richard could not see the silver lady, from his position, but she must be suspended, somehow, in the air above the worshippers. Richard scanned the circle, to see who else he recognised. The figures were all naked; the silver light shone from their skin as if it had absorbed that radiance. Nonetheless he could see their faces clearly: there was Akenside the merchant, the richest man in the town by far; and the Abbess, and the Baron; once more, like the star chamber meeting, all of the most powerful people he could think of in this part of the country, gathered together; but for what dreadful purpose? And then, at the fringes of the circle, he thought once more that someone was there, and looking towards him. Richard squinted through the smoke: whether it was in fact crowned or not, there was certainly something disturbing, something other than human, about its silhouette; and then the figure vanished.
Before he could scan the circle again to locate it, the lady spoke, breaking out from the monotonous tone of the catechism.
“Who shall give me what I ask?”
“All those over whom we have dominion,” replied the Abbot.
“And who are those?”
“All of the people of the land.”
“What power do you have to promise this?”
“Together we have the power of the Church invested in the Abbey of St Peter, the power of the King exercised these last few years through his Parliament at Gloucester, and we have the power that limitless Gold can wield.”
“You will use these powers to give what I ask to me, who you call Inanna-Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven?”
“We will give them to you,” said the Abbot.
Richard was shaking with fear; once more, he glimpsed what looked like a figure on the outer edge of the circle, detached somewhat; this time he fancied that the figure wore a dark habit similar to his own, and some form of elaborate headdress. But once more it disappeared in the general smoke and chaos. Inanna-Ishtar. He remembered the name from somewhere—one of the many demons evoked by heretics in the past. Why did this one strike some kind of chord, though? Something Friar Beddowes had said, no doubt; it would come to him. Richard forced himself to look back at the circle; he could see that several of the worshippers were trembling as much he was, or perhaps had been seized in some kind of fit. The Abbot’s voice was wavering; but there was no turning back, it would seem, from striking this bargain.
“We will give them to you, Inanna-Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, so you may bring them into your Light,” said the Abbot, his voice strengthening, as if he were gathering himself. And the congregation rallied at this, and though they faltered the first few times, they sang with increasing power, again and again:
Take what we offer you, take what we give,
Bring us the Light so our souls can live.
Take what you ask for, take what we pay,
Here in the wood on the eve of May.
The light intensified rapidly and Richard covered his eyes; he heard screams from one or two of the worshippers, cries from the others, who were closest to the source; and then the voice of Inanna-Ishtar sounded like the great Abbey bell.
I who have divine powers, who you call Inanna-Ishtar;
I who have ascended the holy mountain,
I who sit upon the divine throne:
I give you these magic words that you might bring about a new world of Light.
At this, the light boiled over, exploding in a shower of sparks, and though Richard’s eyes were closed, and his hands were held fast over his eyes, suddenly he could see the image of an eight-pointed star burning; and through that burning star he could see wondrous things. He could see honey-coloured stone and white-rigged ships that covered the world; he could see great cities blistering the earth; he could see the bodies of the rich grow tall and strong, and honey-coloured like the stone; they shone with a silver light; he could see great quarries and mines dug into the ground, and their dust covering the forest; he could see all the wealth of China and the Indies set at the Abbot’s feet, and the jewels of Africa littering the foothills of England. A new world of light. He remembered the phrase now; that had been Inanna-Ishtar, too; Friar Beddowes had said something about an organisation to bring about the new world, something like that. Richard shook his head, trying to clear it, trying to remember. Friar Beddowes had said that the man of conscience, when they time came, would have a choice to make. But what choice?
The sound of that infernal humming began again, this time intermingled with the cries of the worshippers; the fire in the centre of the clearing grew to meet the light, and it blazed out across the land; Richard could feel himself rise up, could see the worshippers rise up with him in their nakedness; and he could see a great fire sweep across the land as if a curtain were being drawn. He could see that the fire burned the land, and left it clean; he could see that those who were burned and those who survived were as ants before him, raised up as he was. He could see huge infernal foundries in which the offspring of this great fire burned; immense workshops into which the labourers of the fields were crowded, their gates surrounded by demons whose tyrannical and gigantic eyes dwarfed the rest of their bodies. He could see the congregation at rest above this fiery melee, crowned with gold and set upon thrones of ruby and emerald. A bejewelled monarch sat beside them, her body naked, her face covered; and only flame-bright eyes showing through the slits of her visor. Above her blazed that silver star, eight-pointed and brilliant, and cold.
“Behold, ye are risen!”
The voice that rang out across the wood was both the voice of the goddess and the voice of the Abbott, co-mingled. It was terrible and strange, and the echo of it was still with Richard when he awoke, face down in the dew-damp ferns.
Very tentatively, Richard reached out a hand and grasped a wet frond, to feel its life in his fingers; it was dawn, and there was birdsong all around him. He raised his head at a faint scratching sound, to see a roebuck nibbling at something two or three yards from his prone body. He could smell the earth itself, and against it, the remnants of fire. He was alive; he would be missed at Prime, and again at breakfast; someone would be sent to find him. What should he do? What had he seen? And in which world had he awoken?
“Brother Richard,” said a man’s voice, “you have arisen at last.”
Had they found him so soon? Richard half-rose, on trembling legs, and looked around the glade. The smouldering fire had been abandoned, it seemed. Just off to one side, half-hidden by the branches of an old elm tree, he saw the one who had spoken. He was slight, and wore a moss-coloured habit similar to his own, the hood drawn up close and topped with a simple coronet of bone or antler.
“I must see the Abbot,” Richard muttered, still dizzy, “I must see the Abbot.”
“Him? What do you have to tell him?”
The figure’s voice was like the rustling of leaves. Richard felt a shiver run down the core of his being.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“And tell me: what did you see?”
“I—I don’t know. Let me go to him,” he said, standing at last, though still uncertain of his ability to move far.
“Brother Richard, tell me what you saw,” said the crowned figure, still half-hidden by the undergrowth, the dark green habit in the early morning light looking like nothing so much as the shadow of something otherwise invisible to him.
“I saw heresy,” said Richard, quietly, testing out his voice; he did not want to look directly at the other; it disquieted him somehow. Had he truly awoken?
There was a laugh, a flawed sound, like dragging a rotten stick across a tree trunk; the figure moved with surprising swiftness and quiet around him, going from point to point among the trees, tracing out a jagged line as it did so.
“You saw an offering being made, certainly; a deal being struck.”
“Heresy,” Richard repeated. He felt his choler rise once more; he prayed silently for the strength to run.
“There are many kinds of heresy. There are many gods, after all. You of all people should know that.”
“What do you know of me?”
There was no reply to this. Richard’s head started to clear. Who was this stranger? Someone from his past, perhaps; being freelance meant that Richard had developed a certain notoriety in his time. Or someone from the Abbey, if this was somehow related to his Order, at some mysterious level above his station as a new initiate. Richard shook his head at the thought of falling foul of some unknown rule so soon after beginning his new and orderly life within the walls.
“I know that you value freedom,” said the rustling voice. It was behind him now.
“Freedom from what?” Richard said, trying to buy time while he thought things through. What was the strange figure doing? First it had been on the edge of the ritual circle; now it seemed to be making its own circle around him.
“From heresy, once, and then from chaos and violence; now from order itself, perhaps.” The figure had almost completed its dance around him, and was perhaps fifteen yards away from regaining its starting position.
“What do you know of me?”
Shouting this question, his whole body suffused with a surge of panic and rage, Richard began to run; he moved without completing his thought, moved instinctively, and only as he accelerated, forcing his weakened legs to push through the heavy wet bracken, did he realise what had prompted him to do so. Something from an encounter many years ago with a self-proclaimed wizard: the figure was closing a circle, trying to trap him.
“Do not break the circle, if you want answers,” said the voice
Something made Richard stop running; as he was about to turn back, a sickly radiance came forth and lit the woodland, hurling a shadow, gigantic and crowned with antlers, out before him. And with the remains of the fire smouldering blackly at its centre, the radiance reached out, and took him.
“Let me show you another future.”
Richard looked around and tried to move. He could see a flickering shadow, with its antlered head, on the wall of what looked like a moss-bound cave ahead of him; he had been bound to a great tree stump with ivy.
“Set me free,” said Richard.
“That is what I seek to do.”
Richard heard some hurried incantations, and the shadows on the wall in front of him shifted.
Suddenly he could smell honeysuckle and rose. The drowsy sound of the bumble bee mingled with the song of the blackbird and the thrush; he could feel a fresh breeze upon his skin, raising goosebumps. Gradually the shadows resolved themselves: the waving grasses of a meadow. He was surrounded by water; it was an island, this place in which he stood, marshes and swamps and rivers around him, a festering place for insects. There were swarms before his eyes of black flying creatures like miniature dragons. He saw a hare leaping across the edge of the meadow, the kite diving through the summer-blue sky, the chaotic dance of the butterfly; he saw a well-trodden path through the grass, and followed it. He came to where the river god lay all around him in a circle. He walked among standing stones and un-made ways and ridges and hollows of uncertain origin in the woods; he saw a mappa mundi stretched out upon the forest floor, patched with blankness like the hide of a dairy cow. Richard saw disease and darkness and violence and freedom; he saw something ancient being dredged from the black stuff. His eyes followed the hare’s path and the kite’s fall and the gyre of the butterfly; the shadows flickered and he saw no flames and no workshops and no slavery except for a universal bond to the land; he saw no kings and no queens and no priests. Richard heard the sloshing of dark water around him and as he came to, he realised that the island he lay upon was only there in the darkness. Holding him up.
“Choose,” said the voice like rustling leaves, and Richard was back in the cave.
“What should I choose?”
“Choose,” said the voice again.
“What have you shown me? Who are you? A demon?”
“You have seen the future,” said the voice, but it was fading.
Richard could see that the sun had climbed halfway across the morning. He would be missed at the Abbey.
“Why me?”
“You are between two worlds,” said the figure, “choose.”
Richard took a breath. What did it mean? Was he somehow privileged to see these visions? Was he caught between these visions of the world—that of the glorious fire-drenched land, and that of the dark wooded island—in some way?
“How should I choose?” Richard said.
There was no answer this time.
The monastery of St Peter was quiet in the midday sun. Richard strode along the north cloister. His fists were clenched beneath the voluminous sleeves of his habit, still grass-stained and full of the smell of wood smoke and burnt meat. His head hurt, and the blood from a small wound had dried upon it. His wrists were red from the bindings. One fist held a silver crucifix, and the other a rough dagger, cut from a willow branch.
Richard raised his hand to the great oak door of the Abbot, from which emanated a barely discernible glow of silver.
Knock, knock, knock.
Now available from Rogue Planet Press: Lovecraftiana Halloween 2019

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