Was that them coming back?
Xantara Pembroke trembled as she held her breath, listening to the sounds from the church sanctuary above. No, it was the rats. It had to be the rats. Now she heard them in the crypt outside her cell.
She flinched as their claws again broke the stillness, now scratching against the cold stone flags. Rats! Her heart pounded as she clasped her hands across her chest to calm herself. She took several deep breaths to stave off a panic attack, to become grounded.
Darkness surrounded her like a thick icy mantle, relieved by a single shaft of watery light that fought its way through an iron grid high above her. She drew a threadbare, mildewed blanket closer around her slender frame and hunched over. She rocked, small movements, back and forth.
Her light cotton dress didn’t stop the cold from the hard stone seeping into her bones. She wrinkled her nose at the musty odor of black earth mixed with decay from a heap of discarded religious paraphernalia. Her skin felt clammy, whether from fear or the damp, she didn’t know.
Is this some sort sick joke?
The faint light grew stronger as the moon climbed into the night sky. It streamed through the cell bars, then reflected up from her white summer sandals. A pile of dusty hymn books balanced precariously on discarded oaken pews. As she’d guessed, she sat in the crypt of St Michael’s.
The old Norman church perched high on a craggy outcrop surrounded by dark, empty fields. Faded paintings of Norman soldiers decorated the wall opposite, and the three cells, fitted with iron bars, stored communion wine and other church artifacts. One cell was packed with furniture and old church vestments.
She realized no one would hear her shouts, so she sat, a pale presence, waiting in silence. A candle stub and box of matches lay on a three-legged stool next to her. Her hands shook as she struck a match. The flame flickered, then sprang into life as the smell of sulfur surrounded her. She huddled over the flame, but drew little comfort from its warmth. The glow highlighted tendrils of pure white hair which flowed over her shoulders, and the darkness accentuated the pearlescent albino skin on her bare arms, which resembled the surface of a cold marble statue.
A time-worn, plastic-lined milking pail had been left for her convenience. In pain, she struggled across the uneven stone floor and relieved herself. Tired and bruised after her failed struggle, her arms throbbed. She rubbed them, and the pain lessened. She sank onto a narrow cot and dropped her head into her hands. A sigh of despair escaped her lips.
She clenched her fists. How could she have been so damned stupid? She shouldn’t have trusted them! Why did she ignore her gut feeling? Why on earth did she agree? Her outburst bounced around the vault, its echo diminishing as it lost power. She should have realized. What a bunch of fanatics!
Her shoulders slumped as she reflected on events that led up to her imprisonment. It was obvious in hindsight. They used surveillance, watched her every move, perhaps even witnessed a ceremony. She hoped not.
Her actions were misconstrued, twisted by warped minds, their real significance lost. They didn’t understand, but judged her, anyway. Prejudice and bigotry radiated from them, a foul stench so palpable she imagined black, misty auras curling around each evil one of them. She felt blood pounding through a vein in her neck, felt her face flush.
Her sixth sense warned her off, but Braeden hurt so much. It seemed such an innocent request. After all, what damage could a harmless church group do?
She stretched out in an attempt to get comfortable. As she lay back, she heard a ragged cry.
A weak, hoarse voice answered. “Xantara, is that you?”
“Yes, who is it?”
She knew the young man at once. He’d arrived in the village not long after she, Braeden, and their seven year old daughter Imogene did eleven months before, and opened a hairdressing salon just two doors down from the clinic where her husband was the physician and she worked as a nurse and midwife. She pictured him, tall and thin, his tangle of ginger hair atop a face covered with typical teenage spots which stood out like a rough moonscape against his sun-reddened skin. She liked him right away. His ready smile showing his perfect white teeth flashed often, made her day feel brighter. She found him helpful and pleasant, and an excellent hairdresser.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
“No! They mangled my hand!” Another muffled sob escaped his lips. “How can I do hair now? They’ll be back soon.”
She ran her fingers through her hair, then let it fall back. “They’ve hurt you? I can’t believe it.”
“They pushed my fingers into a metal bone crusher, one at a time.” He moaned, apparently remembering the painful agony.
Blood pounded in her ears. “Who did this?”
“I don’t know. I was sweeping the floor, when someone pulled a sack over my head and held a smelly cloth over my face. Then I woke up here.” He yelled into the darkness. “What have I done? Please, let me out!”
She immediately knew his “crime.” It stood out like a circus in town.
It was obviously the same group who’d dragged her down here, her head also covered with a sack. Why the sack? Of course. Intimidation, shock tactics, their tools of choice. But he’s just a boy, how could they?
The lad quieted, and she thought about events that had led up to their predicament. The church group was behind it.
The group met on Thursday nights, right there, upstairs. She refused to go, but Braeden attended every meeting. A few villagers knew the group’s radical views, and sometimes let details slip. As a midwife and nurse she tended many locals, and heard plenty. She was shocked by the outrageous tales, and dismissed them. Big mistake!
She turned her attention back to the boy. How could she reassure him?
“Take a breath,” she said, “and calm down. I’m sure they’re just out to scare you.” She herself took a deep breath, determined to sound upbeat, although she knew she was lying. “They’ll let you go. After all, what else can they do?”
The boy cried louder. Her stomach contracted with concern as he wept in despair. What can we do?
“They” were a splinter group affiliated with St Michael’s church. Some of the rumors called them a zealous Fundamentalist sect, others thought them more sinister. Intolerant to “sinners,” some said. They wanted to cleanse the area of practices they considered abhorrent. Apparently, their targets were anyone outside their group. Now they’d put their plans into action by kidnapping Jonathan and her.
The young man cried out for his Mum. His voice became childish as he grew more fearful.
“It’ll be all right,” she whispered. “We’ll tell the police as soon as we get out. Then we’ll take you to hospital and get your hand fixed.”
She leaned back against the stone wall, thinking. They wouldn’t go any further, would they? She knew why she was chosen. She shivered as her imagination ran wild. What would they do to her, if they could mutilate a young man like Jonathan? She drew her knees to her chest and clutched the star that dangled from its silver chain.
They must have singled her out when the village clinic re-opened. Then, her unusual name gave her away. Xantara, meant “protector of the earth,” an ancient name passed down through the centuries, its source lost in antiquity. She carried on a sacred tradition, privileged to bear the honored title.
Her thoughts wandered. So much had happened since they moved to the village.
Her daughter Imogene wriggled about, peering over the front car seat. Her face beamed as they approached Monkton St Michael and drove down the High Street. Braeden would start his new job soon, as the village doctor. For the last few years, he’d worked as an emergency physician in Swindon, but she’d always known he preferred the variety and friendliness of a small village. And now they were here.
“This is it.” He stopped the car in front of the clinic. Xantara and Imogene jumped out as he searched the glove box for the key, then opened the front door. They stepped in.
The well-ordered waiting room had a dozen chairs placed against the walls, and a coffee table held a collection of tatty, out-of-date magazines. The doctor’s office looked comfortable. A padded but worn chair sat in front of a wide modern desk. Pictures of muscles and skeletons hung next to an eye chart on the wall.
They entered the living quarters, accessed from the office. She saw the terraced house ran from front to back, one room wide but five rooms in length. It charmed her from the start.
Together, they explored. Imogene skipped from room to room, chattering away as she swung her arms. They walked through the cottage and Xantara admired the compact rooms. She discovered the stairs, out of sight behind the kitchen, and climbed the worn wooden steps to inspect the three small bedrooms and single bathroom. Imogene followed her, then ran ahead. The front bedroom’s window overlooked the street. “I want this one, Mummy.”
Together they went back down and inspected the renovated extension. It would make a brilliant sunroom, she realized, an ideal place to relax with a good book. The forty-five feet long back garden included a vegetable patch filled with cabbages and beans. A small orchard consisted of three trees; a pear, an apple and a plum. She crossed her arms and smiled at the scene. The whole house and business was perfect! The whitewashed walls would set off their dark furniture a treat.
Xantara’s best friend Bryony arrived as arranged with a housewarming gift, a bowl planted with flowering pink hyacinths. Both were born and bred in nearby Avebury, only twenty minutes away, and it had been hard for them when Xantara moved to Swindon. Now they could see more of each other.
The childhood friends hugged, and Xantara led Bryony into the kitchen. “Let’s enjoy some fresh lemonade on the veranda,” she said, opening the clinic fridge. “Braeden, will you oversee the movers while we catch up? Remember that big box labeled “miscellaneous” goes into the kitchen.”
She poured and they went to the shady veranda, and they were soon laughing and sharing anecdotes about their fun-filled childhood days when they chased each other around Avebury Circle. The monolithic stones were just a normal part of their young world, but now Xantara realized the powerful historic site was a central part of their lives. The three thousand year old stone circle held a power that nearby Stonehenge had lost centuries ago. It predated the more famous site by nearly a thousand years.
She sipped the last of her lemonade and sat the sweat-covered glass onto the little glass-topped table. Well, let’s explore the village,” she said, jumping up. She went to the door. “Imogene, want to come along?”
Within moments they were walking arm in arm toward the lake, with Imogene running ahead, then lagging behind as she explored odd-shaped rocks and hopping frogs. She wedged between them and grabbed their hands, and soon they were swinging her high between them.
As they talked, Xantara glanced about at her new surroundings. The Wiltshire Downs area had many villages similar to Monkton St Michael, but none as isolated. She studied the quaint cottages made from local sandstone, many with thatched roofs. The cobbled main street added to its charm.
They stopped at the lake edge and sat on a council bench. The lake looked dark, mystical even, its surface hidden under a rolling blanket of mist. Xantara squinted as she peered over the strange water. The thick haze blurred details of the small island in the centre, and she could barely make out the shape of an ancient stone ruin, black against the sky.
Bryony saw her staring, and followed her gaze toward the island. “What is that?” she asked, pointing.
“It’s just a ruin,” Xantara said. “The locals call it ‘The Isle of Angels’ after the Archangel St Michael. They’ve made the island a bird sanctuary. The road ends at the lake, so no one ventures off the main highway, except for the wildlife, of course.”
As they watched Imogene wade in the gentle ripples of waves that lapped over the smooth stones, Xantara thought of her son Alistair. Since he lived on campus at Cambridge University and was busy with lectures, he hadn’t been able to help with the move.
What a beautiful day. We should treasure such days as they never return.
Distant metallic sounds echoed off the church basement walls, and the scrape of a door jolted Xantara back to the present. She clutched herself tighter, as relentless memories of the moving day flooded her mind. The mysterious island metamorphosed into a monster’s lair. The dark ruin had changed her life in a heartbeat, leaving grief and destruction behind. As she remembered that terrible day, a black despair settled over her, and she began to shake.
Fremont Braxton, holding a paraffin lamp, clattered down the stone steps. Xantara had first seen him on moving day, when she visited his butcher shop for sandwich meat to hold them until they could shop properly. He’d bowed and grinned, and asked her if she’d ever tried spiced luncheon meat. Now, as he waved the lantern back and forth inspecting her and her fellow prisoner, the light revealed a cold frown on his coarse, florid-complexioned face. His vast stomach swelled over his belt under a clean, white butcher’s apron, the result of too many large meat and potato dinners.
Next Eamon and Gloria Tierney came into view, an elfin Irish couple who looked so innocent. Behind them was her worst nightmare, Ezekiel Yates, the pack leader, with his dutiful wife Millicent at his side. The group’s final duo, Archie and Ethel Redford, brought up the rear, looking like simple country folk, almost yokels. In a different time and place they’d be wearing rough country smocks and have strands of straw sticking out of their mouths.
How could they be involved? They’d been so kind after the accident. The meals, the visits… they couldn’t do enough for her this past week. Ethel avoided her gaze and looked at Archie, as he looked back at her. Their shame radiated across the room.
As the seven stood in silence, Eamon inserted four rush torches into eye-level wall sconces. Xantara shank back as far as possible from the bars and saw Jonathan do the same, his face ashen. As Eamon approached, the torches’ flames sprang up and danced on the walls. The eerie light flickered over the ghoulish group, their faces taking on a sinister luminosity.
Xantara heard another set of steps, and turned to peer behind them. It was her husband! She drew in a sharp breath and her hands flew to her chest.
“Braeden! What are you doing here?”
He didn’t answer. The flames emphasized his shock of blonde hair and his Germanic blue eyes which, hard as diamonds, avoided hers. He looked at the floor, then away.
She glared at him. Unbelievable. How could he accept all this? Why doesn’t he stop this bizarre charade? He’d stood by and let them take her without saying a word.
Their marriage had strengthened as each year passed. Even the accident drew them closer. Could it fall apart now? She’d supported him without reservation for twenty-three years, working two jobs while he earned his doctor’s degree for the last seven. Now he’d betrayed her.
Torn up with grief after the accident, he’d accepted the group’s sympathetic support. Who could have known they would brainwash him? She realized only now that he’d been taken in by their radical views. A sudden coldness prickled her scalp, her eyes squeezed shut.
She understood his search for answers, some reason and understanding in the situation. The accident had changed everything. His atheism no longer served him. There was no hope for him, and he needed to believe in something, a future. Now she realized his vulnerable state had made him ripe for the plucking.
“Braeden, help me. Please.”
He didn’t respond. His blank stare now focused on something above her head. Her shoulders stiffened. She wouldn’t ask again. She concentrated on his eyes, trying to fathom the thoughts behind them.
Ezekiel Yates motioned to two men, and they unlocked the door of the neighboring cell with a massive iron key. Jonathan struggled and kicked as they dragged him out.
A coarse, altar-like flat stone lay in the crypt’s center, a rusted iron ring hanging down on each side. They pushed him face down onto the stone, shackled his hands to the rings, and bared his back. He screamed in pain as the chains rubbed against his crushed fingers. His breathing was ragged as he sucked in air. Horrified, she stared.
What on earth would they do next? It’s the twenty-first century, for goodness sake!
Ezekiel, beads of sweat on his forehead, flashed a cold smile and opened his bible. He began reading a passage, in a deep bass voice that filled the room.
“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
His voice droned on, becoming louder. He interspersed “faggot” and “sinner” among the biblical words, as he leaned in closer and shouted into the young man’s ear.
Ezekiel lifted a whip, and a lump mixed with sour saliva almost choked her. Several leather thongs sprouted from the handle, each one’s end embedded with a metal weight. The flail swished through the air, the sound sickening her. Bits of torn skin flew up with each stroke. She ran across the cell and grasped the bars. “Stop, you bastards!”
Ezekiel focused on the task in hand, oblivious to her shouts or the boy’s cries. The white of his wide eyes stood out of his red, mottled face like marbles. Demented and uncontrolled, he lifted the whip, beaming as the sharp metal weights sank into flesh again and again. More fragments of skin and sinew were ripped out as the man’s arm went up and down, like a steam piston.
“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman. It’s detestable!”
He struck the boy harder, with renewed energy. “You are a disgrace. Beg God for forgiveness!”
The young man didn’t answer. She saw he was disorientated as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. His slight body shuddered and stilled. Was he dead?
Ezekiel’s fury gained momentum, his voice shaking with insanity. Eamon Tierney caught his arm. “Stop, you’ll kill him!”
Ezekiel shrugged him off, but finally stopped. “He deserves to die!”
A rivulet of sweat glistened as it trickled through the deep scar cut into his left cheek. He threw the flail to the floor and dragged a clean, white handkerchief across his forehead.
The group stood around the stone, staring down at Jonathan. Fremont Braxton prodded him with his toe. No response. He kicked him, then watched with indifference as the boy remained sprawled out, as still as a dead animal left by the wayside. The butcher yawned and stuck his hands in his pockets.
Xantara tore her gaze away from the boy and stared at her husband. There was sheer horror on his face. His jaw hung open, reminding her of a rendition of “The Scream.” Time stood still as she searched his face, until the boy shrieked. She broke free from her trance and turned back to Jonathan. What now?
Ezekiel nodded a silent order. Eamon and Archie unclipped Jonathan’s restraints and flipped him over like a rag doll. Fremont moved between the boy’s legs and yanked his trousers down to his ankles, exposing a bush of fuzzy red hair framing a flaccid penis and shrunken testicles.
The butcher held his boning knife and sharpening block above the lad and drew them against each other, steel to steel. He dropped the block, tethered to his belt, and in one swift movement grabbed the boy’s genitals and swept the knife down in a flashing arc. A chill consumed Xantara as he held his trophy high. She couldn’t help but look down at the damage, and noticed how little blood dripped from the wound. Just a grotesque black slash gaping between his legs. The butcher wiped his knife on his apron, leaving a long, bloody line. He bent low over the boy. “I’ll stop your vile practices, my boy.”
She looked again at her husband as he raised a shaky hand to his forehead. He pulled at his collar, and flinched. His back straightened as his training kicked in and he strode forward to help the boy, but Ezekiel held him back.
Ezekiel nodded again at the two men. They released the chains, hauled his comatose body from the altar, and dumped him onto the cot like a piece of garbage. They pushed Braeden aside as he tried again to help the boy. The cell door clanged shut in his face, and they turned the lock.
Xantara’s chin trembled as she shook her head in disbelief. They all terrified her. She could see they felt no regret; in fact they seemed to enjoy what they’d just done. Just what evil plans were they dreaming up for her? Her whole body quaked, her stomach churned, and she lurched forward, throwing up all over the stone flags. Acid bile rose into her throat as the smell of vomit and coppery blood made her gag again.
Scared stiff, she shrank back against the wall as they turned toward her.