09 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part seven


The day dragged by for Sarah. At first it had seemed like such a good idea to visit the faire, which had been advertised as a “fun day out for all the family” and was supposed to include many shows, including re-enactments of historical events of local significance, and performances by all kinds of local entertainers. There was going to be a hot air balloon ride, many stalls to browse around and a good friend to chat with, along with the possibility of winning a prize or two on some games. Sarah thought it it would be like being a kid again and being taken to the village fête in Bowlan, the village where she grew up.

But the hot air balloon was late in arriving and would not go up because of problems with the furnace, or some other excuse the operator gave whenever anyone asked him. The local “entertainers” turned out to be a comedian who was re-hashing material so old he must have written it before Sarah was born; a performing dog who had no interest in performing; and some dance routines performed by girls from the local junior school.

Suddenly, being a kid again would have its advantages, Sarah realised. The foremost advantage being that the standards by which she judged everything would be much lower, so perhaps the “entertainment” would not seem so bad.

An hour into the day and Sarah had found another way of lowering her expectations. She found the beer on sale in the drinks stall was warm, flat and difficult to hold down; while the spirits all burned the back of her throat, or made her feel sick, or both. The mead was just fine, however.

'Any more of that and you'll be paralytic,' said Howard as she helped Sarah to a seat in the corner of the marquee housing the drinks stall.

'Nonsense,' Sarah protested. 'I'll be fine.'

'If you say so.' Somehow Sarah did not believe she meant that.

'Where's Peter anyway?'

'Watching the historical society massacre an ancient pagan tradition.'

'You sound like you disapprove,' said Sarah. 'I never knew you were so judgmental.'

'What, and you don't?'

'I'm sure it's meant in the finest of educational … umm … somethingorothers. I've forgotten the word.'

'You're drunk,' said Howard, disapprovingly.

'See? I was right. You are disapproving. And you've had several yourself.'

'I was merely making an observation. Also, aren't you supposed to be driving Peter home?'

Sarah shook her head. 'I drove here but he's driving us back.'

Howard nodded. 'Fair enough.'

'Why do you care anyway?' asked Sarah. She sounded more aggressive than she had expected, and tried to tone it down. Best to attempt a modicum of decorum, after all. 'I thought you were all friendly with the bitch crowd and couldn't be seen with the likes of me.'

'What makes you say that?'

'Well, today is the first time you've spoken to me since I left PaganSoc, even though we're on the same course.'

Howard looked down at her plastic cup and said nothing. Sarah began to wonder if she had said the wrong thing.

'I suppose I'm just shy around people I like,' said Howard, uncertainly.

For a moment, Sarah wondered how to take that; the she decided it did not matter. Howard's choice of words was her own problem. Still, the girl seemed nervous now. It would probably be better to try to put her at ease.

'Hey,' she said. 'We've all been there. The thing is though, you've just got to bite the bullet and do what feels right, because if you don't everyone else will just step on you to get ahead.'

Howard nodded slowly but still sounded unsure of herself. 'Yeah, you're right.'

Sarah patted Howard on the shoulder. 'Come on,' she said. 'Let's go and find Peter.'

At six foot three and with dark skin, Peter was easy to spot amongst the crowd of short, pasty locals even though the light was fading. The two women weaved their way through the crowd and took up position on either side of their large friend; Sarah hooking her arm around his, Howard simply standing there with her hands in her pockets.

'Have we missed much?' asked Sarah.

'I think they're about to start,' said Peter.

The crowd formed a wide circle around what Sarah immediately recognised as a basic magic circle. Formed from a thin white rope and decorated, rather unnecessarily in Sarah's opinion, with glitter so the circle sparkled in the candlelight. On the northern side of the circle stood a large stone altar with a deep velvet cloth laid over it. Upon the altar stood two large candles, one gold, old green; while a tall lantern holding fat white candles stood at the south, east and west points.

The crowd on the other side of the circle parted and thirteen robed figures filed in, walking in procession around the circle to the south point, where they stepped inside. The first eleven took up position between the altar and the lanterns, the twelfth knelt to the left of the altar. The thirteenth, knelt at the altar with their head bowed for a moment, then stood; took up a knife from the velvet cloth and walked with a singularity of purpose to the eastern lantern.

Kneeling, the thirteenth figure raised the knife and chanted in Latin. Sarah worked hard to translate what the woman was saying.

'We hail the guardians of the East, the element of Air. I ask that you come forth to guard and protect this circle, and watch over this, our ritual.'

Sarah raised an eyebrow at this. The chant was similar to the one she would have used in her own rituals. It felt wrong to be watching this actor play out a mockery of her faith; and more wrong to stand by while someone who most likely did not know what they were doing called forth creatures over which they would have no control.

She quickly chanted her own protection spell under her breath and noticed Howard do the same.

'What are you two doing?' Peter whispered in her ear.

'Making sure we don't get hurt when these berks bit off more than they can chew.'

The thirteenth figure, a young woman with pale skin and dark hair if what Sarah could see of her in the candlelight was correct, moved on to the south, west and, finally, the north side of the altar and called forth the other three elementals. Sarah held her breath, half expecting screams of terror from the participants or the audience as something burst forth and devoured the actors. It would have been fitting, but also very unlikely.

Sarah watched with interest coupled with a strong sense of revulsion as the actors went through the motions of recreating a stereotypical pagan ritual. No doubt this had been what the Pagan Society had been roped into helping the historical society script, although Sarah wondered if they would have agreed if they had known how badly it would be acted. Those with speaking parts had clearly not rehearsed enough, and the others simply looked bored.

For the finale, the woman who had called the elements forth, and who Sarah had therefore dubbed the faux High Priestess, plunged her dagger into a dead chicken that was held by her would-be high Priest. The High Priest then poured the blood that poured form the poor bird into a wooden bowl on the altar while the faux High Priestess dropped to her knees, raised her arms in supplication and cried out in poorly-accented Latin.

'Lords, accept this offering as a show of our commitment to your cause,' the woman cried. 'And look favourably upon us, I beg of you, when your time of ascension comes around.'

'What on Earth is this crap?' muttered Sarah. By this point, the drink was starting to wear off and she could no longer contain her incredulity.

'I have no idea,' said Howard. 'It's not what I thought they were doing.'

'It's not?'

Howard shook her head. Although the evening light was growing dim and the candles were doing little to counter the encroaching darkness, Sarah could tell that the other woman was just as unhappy as her.

'I thought they were doing one of the solstice rituals,' said Howard. 'I spent an entire afternoon working one out for them, too. I don't know what this is all supposed to be.'

Sarah looked back at the circle. The faux High Priestess was daubing symbols on the foreheads of her coven in the blood of the dead chicken, while the High Priest burned the carcass in a metal dish on the altar. Around the circle, the crowd looked as uncomfortable watching this spectacle as she expected she did at that moment.

When the carcass was burned, the actors filed out of the circle by the southernmost point and disappeared into the crowd.

The other events had ended with polite clapping from the audience. This one ended with silence.

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