an extract from the novel
by Freda Warrington
They nailed him to the cross in the late afternoon. There was nothing left of his tribe but circles of black ash, tent-poles lying criss-crossed like scorched bones, bodies blown apart by cannon-fire and bullets. Every man, every woman and child, dead.
The cross was an X-shape supported by a central post. The shaman hung on it like a five-pointed star, high up so that even through the blossoms of pain that coloured his vision, he could see for miles across the plain. It meant a lot to the invaders, men being nailed to crosses.
No-one could claim to own the land that was his mother. Yet the invaders made that claim. They had come talking of some God who'd commanded them to make heaven on earth by seizing all the land and peoples in their way. They came with crosses, black books and guns.
Charged with the wisdom of the tribe, the shaman had known they lied. When the elders sought his advice he had told them; we must never compromise, never surrender.
His people had taken many of the invaders into death with them before they were finished. Dying bravely was better than living with the lies. But still he wept.
Now the invaders said there were devils in him, because he dreamed and prophesied. They'd mocked and spat on him as he lay bound, the last of his tribe. But it was only to hide their terror of his long face, of his wolfishly sinuous form adorned with feathers, pigments and bones. They'd nailed him up to make an example, a warning.
The nails were spikes of iron through his wrists and feet. The alien metal had split bone and nerve, shooting fire along his limbs. His chest was being crushed under its own weight, sweat dripped down the runnels of his weather-lined face, his heart laboured like a huge, deafening drum. His prick stood proud with the pressure of blood. But he refused to die with them watching him. He used his powers to drive back the pain for as long as he could bear. He urinated on them, shook his sweat onto their upturned faces and cursed them in his own language.
So they climbed up ladders and silenced him.
His flesh shrank and he screamed as the cold edge of the knife rasped softly into the hair between his thighs. There was a sawing motion, then his whole abdomen turned to a whirlpool of scalding agony. He stared down at the raw red wound where his genitals had been. He saw a ragged flesh-mouth pulsing around a river of blood. Then a spider's nest of cruel fingers came up, forced his jaw wide, and thrust the sacs of warm, bleeding flesh into his mouth.
He retched and choked around the foul sacs, but couldn't dislodge them. Between blood-loss and exhaustion his struggles soon ceased. He hung mute, dying.
When the sun sank, his executioners grew restless and left. They feared his friend, the night. Now he was alone, he could die.
As the dusk flowed in across the plain he watched the sky. His last ever sunset was a banner of garish pain. A sea of lemon-gold, acid as heartbreak. Streamers of violet and purple, the outflow of his agony. And at the centre, a boiling red wound.
As darkness closed in, the shaman felt others gathering around him. The souls of the dead. Not his tribe - they were long gone to other hunting grounds - but the older dead, the ones who still restlessly haunted the dream-realm. Tattered and forlorn, they came on paws, on hooves, on wings. They limped on broken bones, flesh flapping from their skeletal forms. Their eyes were lamps of demanding hunger. They streamed in across the vast sweep of the plain and huddled around him in the darkness, waiting.
When he'd been the tribe's dreamer he had communed with them. But now he was to join them, they became terrifying.
He tried to scream, but he only choked and gagged around the soft flesh that filled his mouth. In dumb terror he cleaved to life, even in his bodily torment, knowing that when he died they would claim him.
No use. He was too near the edge to pull back.
He felt their hunger. They were thirsting to absorb his essence. All he had to do was stretch out his arms and float down and he'd be one with them. One with their anguish and rage. Memories would vanish, merging into a dark pool with all the others. Their rage and their eternal restless agony were his. They would all be one. A soundlessly groaning, weeping entity in the wilderness
All he had to do was to let the pain go and fall towards them. All he had to do...
He stretched out his arms like a hawk. His wrists came easily away from the nails; the fiery pain faded like the light. He looked down into the darkness.
He fell -
And Eirian woke, shivering and sweating, her throat convulsing round a scream that wouldn't come.
The afternoon sun slanted through her window, shining on floorboards, the bedside rug, her school uniform folded over the back of a chair against a rough whitewashed wall, a teddy bear gleaming softly gold and benign on the seat. She'd been sitting up on her bed, reading a book for school, when she'd fallen asleep.
Her breath came in shallow gasps. She tried to swallow away the sensation of warm, fleshy sacs in her mouth. Choking.
It had been different from her previous visions, worse. Horribly, vividly real, full of ghastly meaning. There had been nothing good in it, nothing.
Eirian grabbed her teddy bear from the chair and huddled on the bed, resting her chin on its furry head. She listened for the rattle of a fly against her window pane. The window was a square of blue sky, mocking her fear. There was no fly, no nasty little enemy to taunt her - but there was something else. A pressure. A demand.
'Dear Goddess, what do you want now?' she whispered. 'Good Mother, please - I've done so much for you. Make this thing leave me alone!'
No answer from the Goddess. Eirian was alone. She felt the air around her thickening, sucking the rough walls, low ceiling and bare floorboards inwards. Eirian's skin was cold gooseflesh. She sensed icy air moving around her as if disturbed by some huge, famished predator...
She needed a weapon, not a comfort object. She put the bear aside and reached out to grasp the long ivory horn that stood propped against the wall beside her headboard.
The horn was four feet in length, a spike of ivory decorated with spiralling bands of gold-leaf and tiny carved figures. The Horn of Rebirth, a sacred medieval object of which she'd enigmatically become guardian. Its power was symbolic, a focus for the hands that held it. A wand of healing, fertility or destruction.
Downstairs in the cottage, Eirian could hear her mother, Beth, singing as she prepared their tea. But she might as well have been a thousand miles away.
The sunlight turned gelid, leaving images on Eirian's retinas of a five-pointed figure hanging against a vast prairie sky. She heard the tick of claws round her bed. Something unseen was pacing back and forth. Seeking revenge... That was all she could think of. Revenge for what she'd done to the Goddess's enemies.
Eirian sat cross-legged on the quilt, the Horn bone-hard in her palms. Sometimes she felt strong, filled with a milky moon-white power as softly irresistible as gravity pulling the tides. But at this moment she felt very much a child of eleven.
She sat frozen, breath held tight. She sensed the presence trying to break through into her reality; rearing up, its claws pricking and distorting the separating membrane like the skin of a balloon. She must keep it out.
The scrabbling grew louder. Then a head rose over the end of the bed. A black lupine skull, with green lamps for eyes.
Eirian screamed silently, breath rasping through her throat. The apparition stared at her. It was transparent, like the ghost-animals in the vision. Flies circled it, like tiny evil souls.
'In the name of the Goddess, go!' she whispered.
She knelt up with the Horn held vertically, sandwiched between the blue denim of her jeans. The pressure against her loins sent a sensual thrill through her body. She visualised a shield of light protecting her. Then she gripped the Horn and lowered it to point at the haunting.
She imagined she was aiming it at all enemies of the Goddess; at priests, witch-finders, inquisitors, judges. Aiming it at Luke, the rapist and torturer of children, who would have killed her if she had not vanquished him. She visualised white light searing along the Horn from root to tip and all those powerful, cruel men falling away, screaming, their bodies imploding in blood and fire.
She felt the membrane shudder. The glowing eyes in the skull went dead. The head seemed to waver in a heat-haze, breaking up, dissolving to nothing.
'Go,' she said. 'You can't touch me!'
The Horn was inert in her hands, all the power in her mind, yet she felt the presence retreating. It went with painfully slow reluctance and she had to force it every step of the way.
It was gone. The rift was sealed. The world was back to normal. For now.
Then she heard her mother calling up the stairs, 'Eirian, how are you getting on with your homework? Tea's ready!'
She exhaled, her tension draining out to leave her shaken and heavy-limbed. Now she would have to go down and smile and pretend nothing had happened. So Beth wouldn't worry and ask questions.
Eirian slipped off the bed, propping the Horn against the wall. The moment she let it go, her head filled with a ghastly, echoing whisper. For the space of four breaths she felt she was no longer in her room but standing on a great stone in a forest. The stone was translucent, flickering with chaotic, eerie shadows, like a lens transmitting images from the ancient past. And Eirian too felt translucent, a helpless channel for a thousand rushing voices.
'You are going to be punished. You can't escape vengeance. For what you have done and for what you are, you are going to suffer, and all those around you will suffer too. But don't turn to them for comfort, for those you love may be the ones who undo you.'
© Freda Warrington 1997
Pagan Moon is published in UK paperback by Penguin.
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