Read the first chapter of The Pagan's Story...
The Old Hag creates an artifact, a curious crystal skull that glistens from within, in an attempt to control an entity that was born out of smokeless fire. Powerful, evil and conniving, it isn’t supposed to be here.
A young man named Bevin is responsible. Ignorantly, he released the creature with an act of forbidden love so heinous, it causes his manhood to shrivel and whither away. The burden he now carries weighs him down like the massive stones he excavates each day in the quarry.
What monument is Bevin cursed to build? What has he unleashed, and will the Old Hag be able to stop it?
This is how it began. This is The Pagan’s Story.
It was dusk on the evening of the Spring Solstice. The procession plodded across the rolling hillside as it did every year for the ceremony. The western sky was a fading array of pink, orange, and blue. Occasionally, a mourning dove emitted a velvety coo.
On the other horizon, cobalt already dominated the sky, and a few early stars flickered on. Several small dwellings, shacks made of straw, sticks, mud and bones, dotted the shadowy hills.
The procession was led by a brawny, naked man adorned with a buck’s head perched on top of his own. He represented strength for the ceremony and had killed the stag earlier with just his hands. The animal’s rack of horns was smeared with rusty blood, drying as it dripped in the cool, spring night. Meaty remnants of the deer’s flesh draped down the man’s back. Insects that had not yet succumbed to the chill of the night buzzed in circles around it.
Behind him walked three young men who represented virility. They each carried woven baskets filled with flour, mistletoe, roses, and apple blossoms. They wore swags of thinly-knit fabric around their hips, knotted on one side like a sarong.
Several older women followed, walking single file. These were the priestesses, and they portrayed wisdom. The first one was garbed in a black robe. A wreath of mangled twigs rested on top of her white head. It matted down her hair, making it look like a dome. The rest of her hair was wiry and sprayed around her face like a mane. She was known as the “Hag” and was the highest priestess, the oldest and the wisest. The rest of the women wore similar robes, but theirs were grey with heavy hoods that covered their heads. They chanted softly, almost whispering. The words were undecipherable. Though they kept a constant rhythm, each seemed to be reciting her own verse, like a glossolalia-ish version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.
Two lines of young adults, a dozen in all, were at the end of the procession. These were the lesser priests. Several held torches, a few carried bundles, and a couple clutched chipped basalt knives. A goat, pulled on a leash, trailed behind them all.
The procession approached a dwelling made of dry, muddy grass, woven through a stick frame. In front of its doorway, an animal skin was stretched across wooden stakes, and a fire pit smoldered with wispy, swirling sparks.
A woman hunched over the smoky remains. She poked a stick into the glimmering embers, then seared the hide with the white-hot end. Upturned eyes, outlined with soot, wearily watched the procession approach. One side of her brow twitched in unison with the chanting. She cowered low, focusing on the stag-headed man. The woman’s lower lip quivered as if she was about to speak, but only two faint sighs came out.
The chanting stopped. From behind the stag-headed man emerged the Hag. She glowered at the crouching woman and then pulled back layers of animal skin hanging over the dwelling’s doorway.
Inside, a man and his son cowered. The boy’s tear-streaked face burrowed into his father’s chest. The man crooked his neck to whisper in his son’s ear. The lad grunted fiercely, as if trying to block out his father’s words.
The Hag entered, followed by a priest with a torch, and two priestesses with a bucket of water and a bundle of linen. The three women sat in a circle, and the father nudged his son to stand in the middle.
He was a wild-looking boy, with matted blond curls and wise, darting eyes. His age was hard to determine because his face had the features of a lad who was at least eighteen summers old, but his physique was that of adolescent.
The women pulled off his tattered tunic and cast it aside. They untied a leather strap from the boy’s waist and his britches easily slid to the dirt floor. He stood naked while the priestesses washed him. After he was clean, they swathed gauzy linen around their pledge, and led him outside.
The priestesses showed the newcomer his place in line, right behind the stag-headed man. The boy shivered, nodded, and acquiesced. As the procession moved, he despondently followed.
The father and mother stood by the smoldering fire pit and watched them march away. “Bevin is smart and resourceful. He’ll be among those who come back,” he said to her.
The woman stopped trembling long enough to let out a long, woeful wail, causing the cooing mourning doves to fall silent in respectful homage to her cry.
Oubliette — A Forgotten Little Place copyright © 2016 by Vanta M. Black.
Website, art, cover, and jacket design copyright © 2016 by Black Château Enterprises.
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